the story of judith and holofernes
In European art, Judith is very often 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 and scholars, Judith’s 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.
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. 
Under this theory, the story, although fictional, would be set in the time of Queen Salome Alexandra, the only Jewish regnant queen, who reigned over Judea from 76 to 67 BC. 
The extant Hebrew language versions, whether identical to the Greek, or in the shorter Hebrew version, date to the Middle Ages. The Hebrew versions name important figures directly such as the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, thus placing the events in the Hellenistic period when the Maccabees battled the Seleucid monarchs. The Greek version uses deliberately cryptic and anachronistic references such as “Nebuchadnezzar”, a “King of Assyria”, who “reigns in Nineveh”, for the same king. The adoption of that name, though unhistorical, has been sometimes explained either as a copyist’s addition, or an arbitrary name assigned to the ruler of Babylon. [ citation needed ]
Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1470. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Giorgione, Judith with the Head of Holophernes, 1504. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Book of Judith, apocryphal work excluded from the Hebrew and Protestant biblical canons but included in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) and accepted in the Roman canon.
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.
The gold-leaf of Klimt’s painting calls all the way back to the gold-leaf used to frame and emphasize the scene in the 1300s manuscript. The patterning calls even further back into Byzantium and Ancient Egypt. The pictorial tensions between geometry and fluidity, three-dimensions and two, look forward into abstract expressionism and high modernism. Judith, who cleaved head from body, and severed women’s ties to their socially-imposed roles, is the perfect symbol for this conflicting, amorphous, advancing sense of the new.
The narrative contains many historical inaccuracies or anachronisms — particularly attributing actions and timelines to Nebuchadnezzar which are in conflict with most other accounts. It may be, strangely, these very inconsistencies which have contributed to the story’s enduring relevance, its ever-contemporary feel. These ahistorical glitches are enough to remove Judith’s story from the confines of ecclesiastical law, the dogma of gospel. The story therefore operates more like a fiction than a fable, Judith more like a symbol than a saint, able to be adopted and modified slightly in the hands of the artists of each age without fear of blasphemy. Judith has entered the realm of story-cycles. Rather than being doctrine, this is a folk-tale. A ballad. A song. And it’s been sung by some of history’s most important voices.