Monday, 14 March 2011

Judith and the decapitated head of Holofernes

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530

 'My God, my God hearken unto me. A widow, for it was thou who didst do the things which were before those things and those things and the things after them...Bring low their might by thy power. For they have planned to pollute thy sanctuary. To defile the tabernacle where thy glorious name doth rest....By the guile of my lips smite...break in pieces their highest state by the hands of a female....King of all thy creation, hearken thou to my supplication, and make my word and deceit for the wound and bruise of those who have purposed hard things against thy covenant and thy hallowed house.'[1]              (Judith's prayer before embarking on her mission)

The story behind this startling sixteenth century painting comes from the Book of Judith [2]. To narrate the story briefly, the tale is set in Judea at around 350 BC and stars Judith a widow and noted beauty from the town of Bethulia. Her town is under siege by the Assyrian army and in a desperate bid to rid her town of their oppressors Judith visits the Assyrian camp. Accompanied by her maid she manages to gain access and is invited to join a private party at which Holofernes the commander of the Assyrian army is in attendance. Waiting until he is drunk Judith seizes her moment to chop off his head and takes it home, the following day Bethulian soldiers accompanied by Holofernes head manage to drive away the invading Assyrian force.

The painting is a suitably beautiful depiction of Judith looking quite regal and poised, holding the decapitated head of Holofernes. Here the artist has not chosen to present the bloody act in action which differs very much from later gory depictions, there is no blood on the sword or her and she certainly does not look like a woman who just took a life. Instead it focuses on her femininity and perhaps the notion of her chastity, which although she spent an evening at the camp remained in tact. In later images she is presented in the act of murder and as sturdier and older in appearance, perhaps this was a step too far for early sixteenth century tastes.
A later depiction from the of Judith in the act helped by her maid by Artemisia Gentileschi dated 1611-12

[1] Morton Scott Enslin (ed.), The Book of Judith: Greek Text with an English Translation, (E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1972), pp. 9-10
[2]The Book of Judith was probably written in the 2nd century B.C, it is included in the Septuagint and Catholic /Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament Bible. It has been suggested that it could have been the first historical novel.

Image 1 from wikimedia
Image 2 from the Web Gallery of Art

Copyright © 2011 Elaine Hunter

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