The story of Judith and Holofernes comes from the Old Testament Apocrypha,
sacred texts that were excluded from the Bible. Besieged by the Assyrians, the
beautiful Israelite widow Judith went into the enemy camp of Holofernes to win his
confidence. During a great banquet Holofernes became drunk, and later in his tent
Judith seized his sword and cut off his head. Their leader gone, the enemy was soon
defeated by the Israelites. This ancient heroine was understood in the Renaissance
as a symbol of civic virtue, of intolerance of tyranny, and of a just cause triumphing
over evil. The moralizing subject was a favorite of the artist.
Judith is portrayed as if she were a classical statue. The drapery folds of her
costume, a clinging white gown, fall in sculptural forms, and her stance, the twisting
contrapposto prevalent in Renaissance figures, derives from ancient models. The
heroine is serene and calm, detached from the gruesome scene as her victim's head
is dropped into a sack held by the servant.
Mantegna was trained in the Paduan workshop of Squarcione, but he was strongly influenced
by the Florentine sculptor Donatello. He married the daughter of the Venetian artist
Jacopo Bellini, and was influenced by his work, as well as that of his brother-in-law