judith slaying holofernes bible story
Judith remained popular in the Baroque period, but around 1600, images of Judith began to take on a more violent character, “and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer.”  Italian painters including Caravaggio, Leonello Spada, and Bartolomeo Manfredi depicted Judith and Holofernes; and in the north, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Eglon van der Neer  used the story. The influential composition by Cristofano Allori (c. 1613 onwards), which exists in several versions, copied a conceit of Caravaggio’s recent David with the Head of Goliath: Holofernes’ head is a portrait of the artist, Judith is his ex-mistress, and the maid her mother.   In Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (Naples), she demonstrates her knowledge of the Caravaggio Judith Slaying Holofernes of 1612; like Caravaggio, she chooses to show the actual moment of the killing.  A different composition in the Pitti Palace in Florence shows a more traditional scene with the head in a basket.
Artists have mainly chosen one of two possible scenes (with or without the servant): the decapitation, with Holofernes supine on the bed, or the heroine holding or carrying the head, often assisted by her maid.
The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved.  Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
The name Judith (Hebrew: יְהוּדִית , Modern: Yehudit, Tiberian: Yəhûḏîṯ, “Praised” or “Jewess”) is the feminine form of Judah.
8 May the God of our ancestors bless you and make your plan successful, so that you may bring glory to Jerusalem and victory to Israel.
I am a Hebrew, she answered,
but I am running away from the Israelites because God is going to let you destroy them. 13 I am on my way to see Holofernes, the general in command of your army, to give him some reliable information. I can show him how to advance into the mountains and take control of the entire region without a single casualty.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Jans Sanders van Hemessen, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, ca. 1540. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The work’s historicity is suspect because of numerous historical and chronological errors. Some scholars have suggested that the existence of similar accounts in the Bible (e.g., Jael in the Book of Judges) and in the interpretive stories of the Midrash point to an early, common source (perhaps from the 6th century bce ) now lost. Others, however, view the story as sheer fiction and attribute it to an anonymous Palestinian Jew who wrote shortly after the end of the Maccabean revolt (2nd century bce ). According to this view, Judith was meant to be the female counterpart of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the revolt, and the book, discussing a contemporary situation in the guise of an ancient historical setting, was written to encourage the Judaean Jews in the uneasy period of independence following the wars precipitated by the Maccabean uprising.
The book relates that Nebuchadrezzar, king of Assyria, sent his general Holofernes on an expedition against Palestine. At the siege of the Jewish city of Bethulia, a general named Achior warned Holofernes of the danger of attacking the Jews. A beautiful Jewish widow named Judith left the besieged city in pretended flight and foretold to Holofernes that he would be victorious. Invited into his tent, she cut off his head as he lay in drunken sleep and brought it in a bag to Bethulia. A Jewish victory over the leaderless Assyrian forces followed.