Judith beheading Holofernes  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The account of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith is given in the Old Testament book of Judith, and is the subject of numerous depictions in painting and sculpture. For many artists as well as scholars, Judith was a character whose sexualized femininity interestingly and sometimes contradictorily combined with her masculine aggression. Judith was one of the virtuous women whom Van Beverwijck mentioned in his published apology (1639) for the superiority of women to men, and a common example of the Power of Women iconographic theme in the Northern Renaissance.

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Summary and iconography

In summary, Judith, a beautiful widow and chosen by God, has used her charms to enter the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general out to destroy Judith's hometown. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away out in a basket (often carried by an elderly female servant). Artists have mainly chosen one of two possible scenes (with or without the servant): the decapitation, with Holofernes prone on the bed, or the heroine holding or carrying the head.

In European art, Judith is normally accompanied by her maid at her shoulder, which helps to distinguish her from Salome, who also carries her victim's head on a silver charger (plate). However, a Northern tradition developed whereby Judith had both a maid and a charger, famously taken by Erwin Panofsky as an example of the knowledge needed in the study of iconography.

For many artists as well as scholars, Judith was a character whose sexualized femininity interestingly and sometimes contradictorily combined with her masculine aggression. Judith was one of the virtuous women whom Van Beverwijck mentioned in his published apology (1639) for the superiority of women to men, and a common example of the Power of Women iconographic theme in the Northern Renaissance.

Renaissance depictions

Judith and Holofernes, the famous bronze sculpture by Donatello, bears the implied allegorical subtext that was inescapable in Early Renaissance Florence, that of the courage of the commune against tyranny. Early Renaissance images of Judith tend to depict her as fully dressed and de-sexualized; besides Donatello's sculpture, this is the Judith seen in Sandro Botticelli's The Return of Judith to Bethulia (1470-1472) and in the corner of Michelangelo's Sistine chapel (1508-1512). Later Renaissance artists, notably Lucas Cranach the Elder, showed a more sexualized Judith, a "seducer-assassin": "the very clothes that had been introduced into the iconography to stress her chastity become sexually charged as she exposes the gory head to the shocked but fascinated viewer," in the words of art critic Jonathan Jones.

Italian painters of the Renaissance who took up the theme include Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, and Paolo Veronese.

Especially in Germany an interest developed in female "worthies" and heroines, to match the traditional male sets. Subjects combining sex and violence were also popular with collectors. Like Lucretia, Judith was the subject of a disproportionate number of old master prints, sometimes shown nude. Barthel Beham engraved three compositions of the subject, and other of the "Little Masters" did several more. Jacopo de' Barberi, Girolamo Mocetta (after a design by Andrea Mantegna), and Parmigianino also made prints of the subject.

See Judith with the head of Holofernes (Cranach)

Baroque depictions

Judith remained popular in the Baroque period. Italian painters (Caravaggio, Leonello Spada, Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Artemisia Gentileschi) depicted Judith and Holofernes; and in the north, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Eglon van der Neer used the story. When Rubens began commissioning reproductive prints of his work, the first was an engraving by Cornelius Galle. Other prints were made by such artists as Jacques Callot.

Modern depictions

The allegorical and exciting nature of the Judith and Holofernes scene continues to inspire artists. In the late nineteenth century, Jean Charles Cazin made a series of five paintings tracing the narrative and giving it a conventional, nineteenth-century ending.

Two notable paintings of Judith were made by Gustav Klimt. The story was quite popular with Klimt and his contemporaries, and he painted Judith I in 1901, as a dreamy and sensual woman with open shirt. His Judith II (1909) is "less erotic and more frightening." The two "suggest 'a crisis of the male ego,' fears and violent fantasies all entangled with an eroticized death, which women and sexuality aroused in at least some men around the turn of the century." (Jones, Jonathan )

Very modern versions often freely reinterpret the elements. For instance, in 1997, Russian artists Vitaliy Komar and Alexander Melamed produced a Judith on the Red Square. In 1999, American artist Tina Blondell rendered Judith in watercolor; her I'll Make You Shorter by a Head is explicitly inspired by Klimt's Judith I, and part of a series of paintings called Fallen Angels.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Judith beheading Holofernes" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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