In light of recent headlines involving powerful men forcing their attentions on women (to put it mildly) I thought we’d look at the story of Judith and Holofernes, from the Book of Judith, in which things most definitely did not go the man’s way. The Book of Judith is included in Christian scripture, either in the Old Testament or the Apocrypha.
First, a summary of the story: Assyrian General Holofernes is outside the city of Bethulia, intending to destroy it. A beautiful Bethulian widow named Judith goes to Holofernes’ camp and spends several days beguiling him. Because of this she is able to be alone with him in his tent, with a servant nearby. She gets Holofernes drunk and, while he is unconscious, beheads him, saving Bethulia. She takes his head back to the city with her.
The story, and specifically the beheading, has a long history of representation in fine art. Let’s look at some of the notable ones:
Michelangelo, Judith and Holofernes, 1508-12. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Michelangelo’s transcendently beautiful Sistine Chapel frescoes cover a great many Biblical stories, and it’s a testament to the importance of the Judith story that he included it, albeit tucked into aa awkward triangular space. This shows the tradition of portraying the scene immediately post-execution, with Holofernes’ headless body still writhing on the bed while Judith and her servant carry his head away. It’s far from the best of the frescoes, but notable for its inclusion.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1530 Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
I love Cranach the Elder’s clarity and eye for detail. His colors, still bright almost 500 years later, astound. This version is notable for the great self-confidence and quiet sense of triumph in Judith’s face. And the lavish costume and jewelry are quintessentially Cranach.
Caravaggio, given the dramatic emphasis on lighting and composition his work is famous for, gives us a suitably grisly scene, yet with considerable depth. Judith is not bloodthirsty or vicious; she stands back and does the deed at arm’s length, perhaps to keep blood off her clothes, but more likely because this is the first great act of violence she has ever committed. Her face is determined yet with an undertone of reluctance. Her servant, though, peers at the act with reserve and an even clinical scrutiny. You might almost think this is not the first beheading the servant has seen.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, 1614-18 Collection of the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
You might expect the most visceral version to come from someone like Caravaggio, but Artemisia Gentileschi outdoes him easily. Here is the killing at its worst, with Judith and her servant grimly determined to see it through. The spurting and dripping blood is worthy of a modern-day horror movie. Interestingly, the Book of Judith says that she killed Holofernes by chopping twice at his neck, but artists show more of a slicing or sawing act.
I had to throw in a ringer to provide a bit of context. This Aubrey Beardsley drawing captures the ending of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, derived from the Old Testament story of the death of John the Baptist. Aside from the fact that it’s a great drawing, it helps signify a change as the twentieth century approaches. Literal depiction of the act gives way to artistic stylization; it is no longer the scene shown that is paramount, but how it is shown.
Gustav Klimt, Judith 1, 1901 Collection of the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna
Gustav Klimt uses the scene as a pretense for a portrait of a beautiful woman, perhaps Klimt’s friend (or lover) Adele Bloch-Bauer. Holofernes’ head is almost out of the picture, with the body of the image taken up with Judith’s calm, voluptuous pose. The frame, made by Klimt’s brother Georg, was designed to make it clear that this is Judith, and not Salome.
And the image still fascinates: Kehinde Wiley is a master at combining traditional elements of European painting with his own vivid color palette and African-American figures. His Judith holds the severed head at arm’s length, with an expression of distaste on her face. The flowered pattern, both reminiscent of wallpaper and the patterned backdrops found in some medieval art, threatens to dominate the scene, but Judith’s strong pose and Givenchy dress hold their own. Curiously, Wiley painted the head of a woman as Holofernes, though I have found no explanation given for this.
Though religious scenes have been less common in the last century or so, they still appear, often in re-imaginings and new styles. The story of Judith tells us not to underestimate a woman; she can be a hero, she can lead the attack, she can succeed where men would fail. Perhaps its time for some enterprising curator to put together a show of strong women. And, yes, there will be blood.