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"Then she [Judith] struck his [Holofernes] neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head." --Book of Judith

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Judith is the protagonist of the Book of Judith, a biblical parable in which Judith is seen as an early incarnation of the femme fatale and a pretext to depict decapitation in art. Its most famous representation in recent times has been by Gustav Klimt as Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901).



The story revolves around Judith, a daring, dangerous and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for being unwilling to engage their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal if reluctant maid Abra to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, to whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him both sexual favors and information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust (though not having delivered on either promise), she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lays 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 by the hand of a woman. Though she is courted by many, she remains unmarried and pure for the rest of her life.

Later artistic renditions

In literature

The first extant commentary on The Book of Judith is by Hrabanus Maurus (9th c.). Thenceforth her presence in medieval European literature is robust: in homilies, biblical paraphrases, histories and poetry. Around 1000, she makes a stunning entry into Old English, together with Beowulf (their epics appear both in the Nowell Codex. At the same time she is the subject of a homily by the Anglo-Saxon abbot Ælfric. The two conceptual poles represented by these works will inform much of Judith’s subsequent history. In the epic, she is the brave warrior, forceful and active; in the homily she is an exemplar of pious chastity for cloistered nuns. In both cases, her narrative gained relevance from the Viking invasions of the period. Within the next three centuries Judith would be treated by such major figures as Frauenlob (mid 13th c.), Dante (Divine Comedy: Paradiso, early 14th c.) and Geoffrey Chaucer's The Merchant The Monk (from The Canterbury Tales, late 14th c.). The Frauenlob example provides another of the directions that Judith’s representations would follow, namely that of the devious, crafty woman, whose sexual allure is fatal to men.

In medieval Christian art, the predominance of church patronage assured that Judith’s patristic valences as “Mulier Sancta” and Virgin Mary prototype would prevail: from the eighth century frescoes in Santa Maria Antigua in Rome through innumerable later bible miniatures. Gothic cathedrals often featured Judith, most impressively in the series of 40 stained glass panels at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (1240s).

In Renaissance literature and visual arts, all of these trends were continued, often in updated forms, and developed. The already well established notion of Judith as an exemplum of the courage of local people against tyrannical rule from afar was given new urgency by the Assyrian nationality of Holofernes, which made him an inevitable symbol of the threatening Turks. A key example is the Judita of the Dalmatian humanist Marko Marulić (1450–1524) (1450–1524), which inspired by the contemporary struggle of the Croats against the Ottomans. A similar dynamic was created in the 16th century by the confessional strife of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Both Protestants and Catholics draped themselves in the protective mantle of Judith and cast their “heretical” enemies as Holofernes. In sixteenth-century France, writers such as Guillaume Du Bartas, Gabrielle de Coignard and Anne de Marquets composed poems on Judith's triumph over Holofernes.

In painting and sculpture

Judith and Holofernes

The account of Judith's beheading Holofernes has been treated by several painters and sculptors, most notably Donatello and Caravaggio, as well as Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Titian, Horace Vernet, Gustav Klimt, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Trophime Bigot, Francisco Goya, Francesco Cairo and Hermann-Paul. Also, Michelangelo depicts the scene in multiple aspects in one of the Pendentives, or four spandrels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In music and theatre

The famous 40-voice motet Spem in alium by English composer Thomas Tallis, is a setting of a text from the Book of Judith.

The story also inspired a play by Abraham Goldfaden, oratorios by Antonio Vivaldi, and W. A. Mozart, and an operetta by Jacob Pavlovitch Adler.

Alessandro Scarlatti wrote an oratorio in 1693, La Giuditta, as did the Portuguese composer Francisco António de Almeida in 1726; Juditha triumphans was written in 1716 by Antonio Vivaldi; Mozart composed in 1771 La Betulia Liberata (KV 118), to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio. Operatic treatments exist by Russian composer Alexander Sernov, Judith, and by German composer Siegfried Matthus.

In 1841, Friedrich Hebbel published his closet drama Judith. English playwright Howard Barker examined the Judith story and its aftermath, first in the scene "The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act," as part of his collection of vignettes, The Possibilities. Barker later expanded the scene into a short play Judith.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Judith" 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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