Judith Beheading Holofernes
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The account of the beheading of Holofernes by Judith is given in the deuterocanonical book of Judith, and is the subject of numerous depictions in painting and sculpture. In the story, Judith, a beautiful widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes because of his desire for her. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith's home, the city of Bethulia, though the story is emphatic that no "defilement" takes place. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away in a basket (often depicted as carried by an elderly female servant).
Artists have mainly chosen one of two possible scenes (with or without the servant): the decapitation, with Holofernes prone on the bed, or the heroine holding or carrying the head. An exception is an early sixteenth-century stained glass window with two scenes. The central scene, by far the larger of the two, features Judith and Holofernes seated at a banquet. The smaller background scene has Judith and her servant stick Holofernes' head in a sack, the headless body standing behind with his arm waving helplessly.
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.