Judith's story

The apocryphal tale of the Old Testament heroine that inspired Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes'

Judith met het hoofd van Holofernes (1455 - 1503) by Meckenem, Israhel vanRijksmuseum

The story

The story of Judith from the Old Testament Apocrypha was a popular subject from the Middle Ages onward. As a tale of courage, it was associated with feminine as well as civic virtue, the intolerance of tyranny and of a just cause triumphing over evil. 

The story begins with the siege of the Israelite town of Bethulia by its enemies, the Assyrians. 

In this 15th-century engraving by the German printmaker Israhel van Meckenem, Bethulia is depicted as a northern European town.

When all seems hopeless, Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, takes matters into her own hands. She dresses in her finest clothes and infiltrates the enemy camp.

Judith wins the Assyrians’ trust to the extent that one night she gains entry into the tent of their general, Holofernes. Dining with him and watching him fall into a drunken sleep, she seizes his sword and cuts off his head. 

Her maidservant holds out a bag to carry the general’s head back to Bethulia.

At the sight of Holofernes's severed head the inhabitants rally and the Israelite forces put the Assyrians to flight.

Van Meckenem shows the Israelite forces charging out of the city gates, the head of the general held aloft on a lance.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1495/1500) by Andrea Mantegna or Follower (Possibly Giulio Campagnola)National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Different interpretations

The way Judith's story was depicted varied according to the interests and concerns of both artists and their patrons – as well as the tastes and prevailing morality of the day. 

In this restrained and balanced depiction by the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, about 1495/1500, Judith appears a serene bringer of justice. Her statuesque pose, idealised beauty and crisp folds of her dress make her appear like a figure from antique sculpture.

It is only with the details of the slaughtered general’s foot and the severed head Judith elegantly drops into the bag held out by her maidservant, that the gruesome nature of the scene is revealed.

Judith walking to the left with the head of Holofernes in her right hand and a sword in her left hand, her servant standing behind the head to left (ca. 1530–50) by Sebald BehamThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Later, other artists took the inspiration of antique statuary a step further by choosing to portray Judith entirely naked. 
In this little engraving from about 1530–50, the German printmaker Sebald Beham depicts Judith striding purposefully forward – the general’s head in one hand, his enormous sword in the other.

Old Testament subjects, unlike those recounting the life of Christ in the New Testament, were seen as fair game for artists wishing to give their art a more erotic or sensational edge.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1520/1540) by Lucas Cranach the ElderKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Depictions of Judith could also take on a more courtly appearance by concentrating on her beauty and luxuriant dress.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, the court artist to the Protestant Elector of Saxony, painted many half-length images of Judith during the 1530s in which she appears in extravagant versions of up-to-the-moment court fashion.

This included an elaborate plumed hat and numerous precious gold necklaces. 

The provocative way Judith holds the sword upright above the severed head of Holofernes was intended to be both erotically suggestive and captivatingly gruesome. About the same time that Cranach painted his representations of Judith, she became a symbol of Saxony’s support for armed Protestant resistance against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. 

The Protestants, like Judith, were bravely taking on a much stronger foe. 

The story of Judith, as a tale of female virtue, had continued popularity during the 16th century. 

This elaborate drawing by Maerten (or Marten) van Heemskerck of 1560 was made for one of a set of six prints depicting Good Women of the Old Testament.
Such images were deemed appropriate for domestic display and for the moral education of young women and girls.

But like many depictions of the story of Judith in the years preceding Artemisia Gentileschi's birth in 1593, increasing attention was given to the gory aspects of the story.

Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1612-13) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte

The highly naturalistic and up-close drama of Artemisia's rendition of the story, painted about 1612–13, still has the power to astonish.

 Leaving aside unnecessary narrative details, Artemisia concentrates on the moment of the beheading itself. She imagines each detail with disturbing clarity.
This might strike us as a deeply alarming image for an artist who was barely twenty years old to paint. 

But Artemisia had personal experience of physical violence. 

In 1611, at the age of 17, she was overpowered and raped by the artist Agostino Tassi. This ordeal led to a lengthy trial at which she had to verify her testimony and answer questions under torture (a common judicial practice at the time) in order to secure his conviction. 

This picture is often interpreted within the context of these harrowing events.

Artemisia’s contemporaries would not have thought to look to her biography to account for her choice of subject. For them, the story of Judith would have been perceived as an appropriate choice for a female artist. It was, after all, a moral tale of womanly virtue triumphing over evil and weakness over brute strength.

The way Artemisia tackled it – in oil paints, on a grand scale and with a confidence and technical capability equal to male artists of her day – was the real surprise. And it showed her, like her heroine, to be a woman of great strength, determination and resourcefulness.

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