1300 Judith and Holofernes from the French Bible of Hainburg
As I have been reviewing early paintings of & by women, one woman continually emerges in the most violent of settings. The woman’s name is Judith. Judith is never the shy, retiring female. She is strong & sometimes seductive, but always proud & driven by righteous vengence. I am displaying paintings of Judith here fairly close to chronological order. You will see how the style and depiction of a beautiful heroine change as time passes. It is often difficult to know exactly when a painting is completed, from the year to the decade or sometimes even the century. The dates I have attached to these depictions are often just hopeful guesses.
1300-1400s Anonymus, Judith and Holofernes
For centuries, the account of the beheading of the military general Holofernes by the Jewish widow Judith has been a compelling subject of art including paintings, sculpture, music, & literature, both religious & secular. In high school & college many of us studied Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the story of Judith is referenced in his segment on The Merchant. Actually her story became famous years before Chaucer embellished it. Before Chaucer, the Anglo-Saxon abbot Ælfric wrote a homily about Judith. Around 1000, Judith makes a stunning entry into Old English, together with Beowulf, when their epic tales appear both in the Nowell Codex. Over the next three hundred years, Judith gains fame in Frauenlob (mid 13th c.), Dante (Divine Comedy: Paradiso, early 14th c.) and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Merchant & The Monk (from The Canterbury Tales, late 14th c.). The Frauenlob presents Judith as a devious, crafty woman, whose sexual allure is fatal to men.
1300-1400s Judith and the Beheading of Holofernes
In Western Renaissance literature, painting, & sculpture, the story of Judith became an exemplum of the courage of local people against tyrannical ruler & invaders from afar. It also highlights a woman as the heroine whose dogged belief saves her religious community. The Book of Judith is a deuterocanonical book, included in the Septuagint and in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament of the Bible, but the book is excluded in the Bibles of Jews and Protestants. The book of Judith is said by knowledgeable scholars to contain numerous historical inaccuracies, but it has been accepted by many readers as a traditional parable and even referred to as one of the first examples of an historical novel.
1300s Anonymus, Judith Decapitates Holofernes in "Speculum Humanae Salvationis"
According to the story, in the Jewish community of Israel, a belief in the active presence of God among believers everyday could save Israel from its enemies. The daring Judith becomes upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylonia, had sent his military general Holofernes on a violent expedition against Israel; and Holofernes began attacking the Jewish city of Bethulia, in hopes of conquering it and its people.
1430 Judith is Angry with the Elders and Goes to the Assyrians Azor Masters
Alarmed at the harm befalling Bethulia and her beloved Israel, a beautiful Jewish widow Judith devised a plan, which, after fasting and praying, she proceded to carry out. The tale is related in the book of Judith 10:11-13:20. As Judith & her maid intentionally began walking directly across the Bethulia valley, they encountered the Assyrian military outpost.
1430 Holofernes Head Placed in a Bag Azor Masters
The military men took them into custody and asked , “To what people do you belong? Where do you come from, and where are you going?”
1430 Judith Returns and Shows Holofernes' Head to the Bethulians (1430 c.) Azor Masters
Judith replied: "I am a daughter of the Hebrews, and I am fleeing from them, because they are about to be delivered up to you as prey. I have come to see Holofernes, the general in chief of your forces, to give him a trustworthy report; I will show him the route by which he can ascend and take possession of the whole mountain district without a single one of his men suffering injury or loss of life."
1430 Judith Is Praised by the Leader Ozias Azor Masters
When the men heard her words & gazed upon her face, which appeared incredibly beautiful to them, they said to her, “By coming down thus promptly to see our master, you have saved your life. Now go to his tent; some of our men will accompany you to present you to him. When you stand before him, have no fear in your heart; give him the report you speak of, and he will treat you well.”
1430 Holofernes Head Is Displayed on the Walls of Bethulia Azor Masters
So the military leaders detailed a hundred of their men to escort for Judith and her maid Abra, and these guards conducted the Jewish widow and her handmaid to the tent of Holofernes. When the news of Judith's arrival spread among the tents, a crowd gathered in the military camp. They came to stand around her; as she waited outside the tent of Holofernes, while he was being informed about her. The soldiers marveled at her beauty, regarding the Israelites with wonder because of her; and they said to one another, "Who can despise this people that has such women among them? It is not wise to leave one man of them alive, for if any were to be spared they could beguile the whole world."
1440s Diebold Lauber, Title page to the Book of Judith, 1441-1449 German Bible, Heidelberg University Library, Germany
The personal military guards of Holofernes & all his servants came out to usher her into their leader's tent. Now the leader Holofernes was reclining on his bed under a canopy with a netting of crimson studded with gold, emeralds & other precious stones. When they announced her to him, he came out to the antechamber, preceded by silver lamps. When Holofernes beheld Judith, he marveled at the beauty of her face. She immediately threw herself down prostrate before him, but his servants raised her up.
1472 Sandro Botticelli (1445-1519) Beheaded Holofernes
Then Holofernes said to her: "Take courage, lady; have no fear in your heart! Never have I harmed anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of all the earth. Nor would I have raised my spear against your people who dwell in the mountain region, had they not despised me and brought this upon themselves. But now tell me why you fled from them and came to us. In any case, you have come to safety. Take courage! Your life is spared tonight and for the future. No one at all will harm you. Rather, you will be well treated, as are all the servants of my lord, King Nebuchadnezzar."
1472 Sandro Botticelli (1445-1519) Judith Leaving the Tent with the Head of Holofernes
Judith answered him: "Listen to the words of your servant, and let your handmaid speak in your presence! I will tell no lie to my lord this night, and if you follow out the words of your handmaid, God will give you complete success, and my lord will not fail in any of his undertakings. By the life of Nebuchadnezzar, king of all the earth, and by the power of him who has sent you to set all creatures aright not only do men serve him through you; but even the wild beasts and the cattle and the birds of the air, because of your strength, will live for Nebuchadnezzar and his whole house. Indeed, we have heard of your wisdom and sagacity, and all the world is aware that throughout the kingdom you alone are competent, rich in experience, and distinguished in military strategy." “Our people are not punished, nor does the sword prevail against them, except when they sin against their God. But now their guilt has caught up with them, by which they bring the wrath of their God upon them whenever they do wrong; so that my lord will not be repulsed and fail, but death will overtake them. Since their food gave out and all their water ran low, they decided to kill their animals, and determined to consume all the things which God in his laws forbade them to eat. They decreed that they would use up the first fruits of grain and the tithes of wine and oil which they had sanctified and reserved for the priests who minister in the presence of our God in Jerusalem: things which no layman should even touch with his hands. They have sent messengers to Jerusalem to bring back to them authorization from the council of the elders; for the inhabitants there have also done these things. On the very day when the response reaches them and they act upon it, they will be handed over to you for destruction."
1472 Sandro Botticelli (1445-1519) Judith Returning to Bethulia with Head of Holofernes
“As soon as I, your handmaid, learned all this, I fled from them. God has sent me to perform with you such deeds that people throughout the world will be astonished on hearing of them. Your handmaid is, indeed, a God-fearing woman, serving the God of heaven night and day. Now I will remain with you, my lord; but each night your handmaid will go out to the ravine and pray to God. He will tell me when the Israelites have committed their crimes. Then I will come and let you know, so that you may go out with your whole force, and not one of them will be able to withstand you. I will lead you through Judea, till you come to Jerusalem, and there I will set up your judgment seat. You will drive them like sheep that have no shepherd, and not even a dog will growl at you. This was told me, and announced to me in advance, and I in turn have been sent to tell you.”
1491 Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Judith,
Her words pleased Holofernes & all his servants; they marveled at her wisdom and exclaimed, "No other woman from one end of the world to the other looks so beautiful and speaks so wisely!" Then Holofernes said to her: "God has done well in sending you ahead of your people, to bring victory to our arms, and destruction to those who have despised my lord. You are fair to behold, and your words are well spoken. If you do as you have said, your God will be my God; you shall dwell in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar, and shall be renowned throughout the earth.” Then Holfernes ordered his guards & servants to lead Judith into the room where his silverware was kept, and bade them set a table for her with his own delicacies to eat & his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I will not partake of them, lest it be an occasion of sin; but I shall be amply supplied from the things I brought with me.” Holofernes asked her: "But if your provisions give out, where shall we get more of the same to provide for you? None of your people are with us.” Judith answered him, "As surely as you, my lord, live, your handmaid will not use up her supplies till the Lord accomplishes by my hand what he has determined."
1493 Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514), Judith and Holofernes
Then the servants of Holofernes led Judith into the tent, where she slept until midnight. Just before dawn, she rose & sent this message to Holofernes, "Give orders, my lord, to let your handmaid go out for prayer." So Holofernes ordered his bodyguards not to hinder her. Thus she stayed in the camp three days. Each night she went out to the ravine of Bethulia, where she washed herself at the spring of the camp. After bathing, she besought the Lord, the God of Israel, to direct her actions for the triumph of his people. Then she returned purified to the tent & remained there, until her food was brought to her toward evening. On the 4th day, Holofernes gave a banquet for his servants alone, to which he did not invite any of the officers. And he said to Bagoas, the eunuch in charge of his household, "Go and persuade this Hebrew woman in your care to come and to eat and drink with us. It would be a disgrace for us to have such a woman with us without enjoying her company. If we do not entice her, she will laugh us to scorn.” So the servant Bagoas came to Judith & said, "So fair a maiden should not be reluctant to come to my lord to be honored by him, to enjoy drinking wine with us, and to be like one of the Assyrian women who live in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.” She replied, "Who am I to refuse my lord? Whatever is pleasing to him I will promptly do. This will be a joy for me till the day of my death." Thereupon she proceeded to dress in her most festive garments & all her feminine adornments. Meanwhile her maid went ahead to spread out on the ground for her in front of Holofernes the fleece Bagoas had furnished for her daily use in reclining at her dinner. Then Judith came in & reclined on it. The heart of Holofernes was in rapture over her, & his spirit was shaken. He was burning with the desire to possess her. He had been biding his time to seduce her from the day he first saw her. Holofernes said to her, "Drink and be merry with us!" Judith replied, "I will gladly drink, my lord, for at no time since I was born have I ever enjoyed life as much as I do today." She then took the food her maid had prepared, and ate & drank in his presence. Holofernes, charmed by her, drank a great quantity of wine, more than he had ever consumed on one single day in his life. When it grew late, his servants discreetly withdrew from the scene. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside & excluded the attendants from their master's presence. They went off to their beds, for they were all exhausted from the prolonged banquet. Judith was left alone in the festive tent with Holofernes, who lay prostrate on his bed sodden with wine. She had ordered her maid to wait outside the bedroom for her to come out. Judith had told the general's servant Bagoas that she & her maid would be going out for her prayer later in the night, according to the pattern she had already established. When all had departed & no one was left in the bedroom, Judith stood by Holofernes' bed & said within herself: “O Lord, God of all might, in this hour look graciously on my undertaking for the exaltation of Jerusalem; now is the time for aiding your heritage and for carrying out my design to shatter the enemies who have risen against us." Judith then went to the bedpost near the head of Holofernes, and taking his sword from it, drew close to the bed, grasped the hair of his head, and said, "Strengthen me this day, O God of Israel!" Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck cutting off his head. She rolled his body off the bed and took the material of the canopy from its supports and hid general Holofernes in it. Soon afterward, Judith came out and handed over the head of Holofernes to her maid, who put it into her food pouch; and the two went off together, as they were accustomed to do for prayer. They passed through the military camp, and skirting the ravine, reached the town of Bethulia on the mountain.
1495 Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Judith with her Maidservant Abra
As they approached its gates, Judith shouted to the guards from a distance, "Open! Open the gate! God, our God, is with us. Once more he has made manifest his strength in Israel and his power against our enemies; he has done it this very day." When the citizens heard her voice, they quickly descended to their city gate & summoned the city elders. All the people, from the least to the greatest, hurriedly assembled, for her return seemed unbelievable. They opened the gate to welcome the two women. They made a fire for light; and when they gathered around the two, Judith urged them with a loud voice: "Praise God, praise him! Praise God, who has not withdrawn his mercy from the house of Israel, but has shattered our enemies by my hand this very night." Then she took the head out of the pouch, showed it to them, & said: "Here is the head of Holofernes, general in charge of the Assyrian army, and here is the canopy under which he lay in his drunkenness. The Lord struck him down by the hand of a woman. As the Lord lives, who has protected me in the path I have followed, I swear that it was my face that seduced Holofernes to his ruin, and that he did not sin with me to my defilement or disgrace." All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down & worshiped God, saying with one accord, "Blessed are you, our God, who today have brought to nought the enemies of your people." Then Uzziah said to her: "Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the chief of our enemies. Your deed of hope will never be forgotten by those who tell of the might of God. May God make this redound to your everlasting honor, rewarding you with blessings, because you risked your life when your people were being oppressed, and you averted our disaster, walking uprightly before our God." And all the people answered, "Amen! Amen!"
1495 Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) Judith and Holofernes
The tragic setting of the Book of Judith appealed to Jewish patriots of the period, and it warned of the urgency of adhering to Mosaic Law. But what accounted for its enduring appeal was the drama of its narrative, especially its unlikely heroine. Early Renaissance images of Judith tend to depict her as fully dressed & de-sexualized; as seen in Sandro Botticelli's The Return of Judith to Bethulia of 1472.
Later Renaissance artists, especially Lucas Cranach the Elder who seems to have been obsessed with Judith, began to depict a more cunning, sexualized Judith, a righteous "seducer-assassin." That is primarily the image that endures.