Hidden Meanings in paintings of Judith
'Judith and Holofernes', Gustav Klimt, 1901-2
Judith is dressed in the rich clothing and lavish jewellery she wore when she went to meet Holofernes. Some commentators have suggested that the oversize golden choker at her neck suggests decapitation. Her clothing is disarrayed, but her look is triumphant as she holds the head of her enemy by her side.
There are similarities between this Art Nouveau painting and Byzantine icons: both make lavish use of gold leaf, both depict female heroines in elongated form. The gold-leaf landscape behind her, with laden palm trees, is reminiscent of ancient Assyrian wall drawings of the Tree of Life. And is that a Star of David above her left shoulder?
See Ancient Jewelry for the sort of jewels that Judith might have worn.
Bible reference: Book of Judith
'Judith Beheading Holofernes', Caravaggio, 1599
The maid Abra stands ready to catch the severed head when it falls away (Abra is one of the most over-looked figures in the Old Testament; she is with Judith every step of the way, and clearly gives her not only a servant's support, but a large measure of courage as well).
Caravaggio has painted a magnificent Holofernes, muscled, strong, powerful. His horrified face is the attention-grabbing focus of this picture.
Judith, on the other hand, slices his neck with a look of mild distaste, as if she is carving the Sunday roast.
The colors, harmonious composition and shading of the painting are superb, as we would expect from Caravaggio. But magnificent as the painting is, it does not convey the ghastly horror of the event.
Bible reference: Judith 13:7-8
'Judith and her Maidservant', Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613-14
Judith's maid Abra has gathered up the head of Holofernes in a basket, and they are preparing to leave his tent when they hear something which makes them stop and listen. The danger of their situation is implied by the position of the sword in Judith's hand: a few more inches and it will cut into her own white throat.
Close-ups of the painting show that the brooch in her hair is a picture of a warrior, perhaps the biblical David who is the male equivalent of Judith.
Bible reference: Judith 13:10
'Judith', Gustav Klimt, 1909
Judith stands, her fingers clenched in the hair of Holofernes' head. Her gorgeous robe has fallen away from her body and her hair is disarranged, but she seems calm, oblivious of her surroundings, almost in shock.
This painting has often been labeled 'Salome', because it depicts a half-naked woman carrying a man's severed head. In fact, it is Judith.
Though it is an archetypal Art Nouveau painting, there are many similarities with Old Master images of Judith: a remorseless, half-clothed woman, disguised tension in the rigid hands, the sumptuous dress.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9
'Judith with the Head of Holofernes', Carlo Saraceni, 1615-20
The maid's anxious face looks up for reassurance to Judith, who despite the horror of the situation appears calm, almost serene. She holds the head of Holofernes in her left hand, ready to drop it in the bag held by her maid.
The darkness of the painting suggests the secretive nature of what they are doing, the need for stealth. In reality it is unlikely that Judith was as calm as she appears in this picture, but there is an unexpected touch of realism in the way the maid holds the bag. She grips one point between her teeth and makes an opening by holding two other points with her hands - just the way you would to make an opening for a large round object, be it a cabbage or a human head.
There are only subtle indications of the violent murder that has just occurred: the reddened fingers that hold Holofernes' head, and the spatter of blood on Judith's right temple. Subtle, but terrifying.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9-10
and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes'
The deed is done - Judith still holds the sword in her hand. Now the fearful women stop to listen, to see if an alarm has been raised.
Orazio Gentileschi seems to have been more interested in the woman themselves than in the violent crime they had committed. These two women are not idealized beauties but real people, both with their own personalities and agendas. This makes the painting sharply different from many of the others completed at that time, and may have something to do with the rape of his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi - a real person to her father, not just an unnamed victim of crime.
See Warfare in the Bible for information about the reality of war in biblical times.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9-10
'Judith in the Tent of Holofernes', Johann Liss, 1622
Judith has cut off the head of Holofernes and looks back over her shoulder, out towards the viewer. Her expression is strange - dazed, almost detached. She and her servant Alba are placing the severed head in a basket.
Caravaggio's influence is clearly evident in Liss's painting - the sumptuous flesh tones, lavish fabrics and dramatic lighting. The twisted gold fabric draws the eye upward towards Judith's naked back and the ambiguous glance she casts over her shoulder. Holofernes' hapless body pushes out into the foreground of the painting. An unusual feature of the painting is the black servant who stands behind Judith, looking up at her.
Bible reference: Judith 13:8-9
'Judith Beheading Holofernes', Artemisia Gentileschi, circa1612
This is a rare depiction of something other paintings ignore: the fight that Holofernes may or may not have put up when he was being murdered. Here, in the moment of dying, he presses his right hand up against his assailant, attempting to fight her off. Judith's body seems to flinch away - from Holofernes? or from what she is doing?
This painting was made at about the time that Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her tutor, the Tuscan painter Agostino Tassi. There is obviously a certain amount of personal relish in the painting, with underlying themes of castration and impotency. The story of Judith doubtless appealed to Gentileschi, depicting as it did the triumph of female guile over male force.
Bible reference: Judith 13:8
'Judith and the head of Holofernes', Giovanni Baglione, 1608
The body of Holofernes, now separated from his head, seems to writhe in its death throes. A rather winsome Judith has grasped the head by its hair and is moving away from the couch. Her maid looks back in horror at the body.
Contrast this image with Caravaggio's (above). Judith seems remarkably tranquil in the circumstances, while her maid registers shock and horror. But note in particular the different treatment of Holofernes' body. Here in Baglione's painting the body itself is almost hidden. What we can see of it is distorted and writhing, the head quite separate from the body - altogether, a figure of horror.
Bible reference: Judith 13:8-9
'Judith and her Maidservant With the Head of
Judith has killed Holofernes, and now her maid Abra crams the bloody head into a sack, to carry it back to Bethuliah. But they seem to have heard something, and pause, waiting to see if they have been discovered. If they have, they know they will die too.
The tension of the scene is almost palpable. Danger is close as Judith and her maid Abra gather up the severed head of Holofernes, preparing to flee from the enemy camp, back to safety in Bethulia. The light and shadow emphasise the imminent danger as Judith and Abra prepare to flee Holofernes's tent with his severed head. We can almost smell and feel their fear.
Bible reference: Judith 13:8-9
'Judith with the head of
Holofernes', Cristofano Allori, 1613
Judith has hacked off the head of Holofernes and now puts away the sword she used to do the deed. Her maid leans anxiously towards her, protectively, urging the dazed Judith to move with more speed.
The head of Holofernes is said to be a portrait of the artist, and the woman in the picture was modeled on his mistress, a famous beauty called Mazzafirra. Perhaps it is a comment on the balance of power within their own relationship - she having conquered him and now holding him helpless in her grip. His face is already drained of color, a dramatic contrast to the rich material of her robe.
Bible reference: Judith 13:10
'Judith with the Head of Holofernes', Lucas Cranach, 1530
Judith's right hand holds the sword, instrument of death. The fingers of her left hand as entwined in Holofernes' hair, as she toys in an absent-minded way with the lifeless head.
you are looking for subtlety, walk on by. Cranach the Elder is not your
man. But if you value a strong, no-nonsense message about God, faith and
salvation, you may want to look more carefully at his work.
For information on jewelry at that time, see Ancient Jewelry
Biblical reference: Judith 13:6-9
with the head of Holofernes, stained glass window
Judith holds the recently severed head of Holofernes by its hair. His sword, which she used to kill him, is smeared with his own blood. Her dress, too, is spattered by the fearsome thing she has done.
An ignoble end for a famous warrior, killed by his own sword. Judith is lavishly dressed, with a jewelled head-dress enclosing her thick hair. Compare the two faces: hers blank - with shock? His ghastly in death.
Behind Judith are two things: the all-seeing eye of God, and the Hebrew letter 'yod' which is symbolic of the name of God - Marc Chagall uses this same device in his paintings.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9
'Judith with the head of Holofernes', Titian, circa 1515
Judith has cut off the head of the enemy general Holofernes, and now prepares to carry it back to the townspeople of Bethuliah.
There has been some argument about the identity of the woman in this painting. The confusion arose because the decapitated head is carried on a silver platter, traditionally the way that John the Baptist is depicted. This would then make the woman Salome. But the adoring expression on the face of the second woman suggests that she is Abla, Judith's servant, and this seems more likely. It is generally accepted now that this is, in fact, a painting of Judith, done at the beginning of Titian's career.
Bible reference: Judith 13:8-9
'Judith', Vicenzo Catena, 1520
This painting of Judith is quite different to most others on the subject. She is dressed in white, the color of chastity, and the sword stands firmly between her body and Holofernes' head. The picture contains a message about her chastity, which the Bible says she retained despite every effort on Holofernes' part to seduce her. This is no seductress, but a determined heroine.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9-17
'Judith with the head of Holofernes', Titian, 1570
Judith has cut off the head of Holofernes and now picks it up by its hair, to lower into the bag held by her maid Abra.
This is a painting made by Titian towards the end of his life. His Judith is a luminous, serene beauty assisted by a black servant woman. The head of Holofernes is truly terrifying, a dark and gruesome trophy for the Judean inhabitants of Bethuliah.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9-10
'Judith carries away the head of Holofernes', Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512
Below: the same image before cleaning
Below: Detail of Judith and Abra with the head of Holofernes
Holofernes' lifeless body lies in the background as Judith and Abra hurry away from the scene of the murder. Abra carries the grisly head on a tray/basket, and Judith tries to cover it from sight.
This is part of the fresco in the Sistine Chapel. When he came to choose images for the Chapel, Michelangelo seems to have focused on heroic deeds, or on seminal moments in the story of God's unfolding plan. He saw Judith as one such hero, leaving the obscurity of her life as a widow in a small city to undertake terrifying actions that would ultimately save her people.
Bible reference: Judith 13:9-11
'Judith', Giorgione, 1504
Unlike the other paintings of Judith, this one
does not show a particular moment in the story. Holofernes has been
killed, but Judith is not in the process of returning to Bethuliah as
she subsequently did. The head is not wrapped up, or being displayed on the city
walls, but is
simply a trophy taken in battle. The battle of the sexes? The painting is
more like a portrait of Judith as a goddess of sexual love - see
Giorgione's 'Sleeping Venus' for a similar image of idealized beauty.
Georgione's image of Judith contrasts dramatically with other paintings of this subject. She is remote, untroubled, serene - a goddess, not a human woman who has just committed violent murder.
In the background is a landscape, reminiscent of the country round Castelfranco, which the artist knew as a boy, and loved all his life. Giorgione died young, probably of the plague in Venice, but his works have remarkable maturity and a certain enigmatic quality, Could not this 'Judith' be likened to a profane Mona Lisa?
Biblical reference: Book of Judith
the Head of Holofernes',
Judith has returned to Bethuliah, and now draws the head of Holofernes out of the sack her maid has carried. Two attendants run to light her way with torches. Now all the townspeople and all the enemy soldiers can see that the much-feared Holofernes is really dead.
Elizabeth Sirani came from a prominent family of artists - her father was Giovanni Adrea Sirano, principal assistant of Guido Reni. She died at the early age of 27. She has placed Judith in a medieval setting - note the castle ramparts in the background.
See Destruction of Lachish for pictures and information about Lachish, the biblical city that was actually destroyed by an invading king.
Biblical reference: Judith 13:15
'Judith's Return to Bethulia', Alessandro Botticelli, 1470
Judith has completed her mission and returns to Bethulia, sword in hand. Her maid Abra follows with Holofernes' head, wrapped up and carried on the woman's head.
Judith has the air and demeanor of a goddess, rather than a mortal woman. She strides across an idealized landscape sword in one hand, olive branch in the other. She will live in peace if she can, but is prepared for war if it is forced upon her.
It is interesting to compare Botticelli's Judith and Abra with the figures in his more famous 'Spring'. There is the same sense of detached majesty at the center of the painting. Judith dominates all around her - and reinforces her power by carrying a rather nasty-looking sword. Yet, as the 'Spring', the overall impression is of fluid beauty and movement.
For more on the unfortunate Nebuchadnezzar, see Bible Villains: Nebuchadnezzar
The image at right is thought to be a portrait of Botticelli.
Off With His Head!!
Judith was a wealthy and beautiful young widow living in a hilltop town called Bethuliah. During a siege of her town, she undertook a daring and sexually ambiguous mission to save her people from annihilation.
At great personal risk, and with only her maid by her side, she went into the camp of Holofernes, the Assyrian commander-in-chief of the enemy forces. He had a fearsome reputation, but she charmed him, even managing to hold his sexual advances at bay.
Once she had lulled him into a sense of security she tempted him into getting drunk, then she took his own sword down from where it hung on his bedpost, and hacked off his head as he lay in a stupor.
With his head wrapped in the bed curtain, she returned triumphantly to her own people in Bethuliah.
The head of Holofernes, hung on the town ramparts, caused panic among the
Assyrians who fled in great disorder.
Book of Judith, Chapters 8-16
What Judith was like: Chapter 8
1 Now in those
days Judith heard about these things: she was the daughter of Merari son
of Ox son of Joseph son of Oziel son of Elkiah son of Ananias son of
Gideon son of Raphain son of Ahitub son of Elijah son of Hilkiah son of
Eliab son of Nathanael son of Salamiel son of Sarasadai son of
Judith talks about God
When Judith heard the harsh words spoken by the people against the
ruler, because they were faint for lack of water, and when she heard all
that Uzziah said to them, and how he promised them under oath to
surrender the town to the Assyrians after five days,
‘For never in our generation, nor in these present days, has there
been any tribe or family or people or town of ours that worships gods
made with hands, as was done in days gone by.
24 ‘Therefore, my brothers, let us set an example to our kindred, for their lives depend upon us, and the sanctuary—both the temple and the altar—rests upon us.
In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who
is putting us to the test as he did our ancestors.
Uzziah said to her, ‘All that you have said was spoken out of a true
heart, and there is no one who can deny your words.
Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something
that will go down through all generations of our descendants.
the rulers said to her, ‘Go in peace, and may the Lord God go before
you, to take vengeance on our enemies.’
The Prayer of Judith - Chapter 9
1 Then Judith prostrated herself, put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing. At the very time when the evening incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice, and said:
God of my ancestor Simeon, to whom you gave a sword to take revenge on
those strangers who had torn off a virgin’s clothing to defile her,
and exposed her thighs to put her to shame, and polluted her womb to
disgrace her; for you said, “It shall not be done”—yet they did
‘For you have done these things and those that went before and those
that followed. You have designed the things that are now, and those that
are to come. What you had in mind has happened;
‘Here now are the Assyrians, a greatly increased force, priding
themselves on their horses and riders, boasting in the strength of their
foot-soldiers, and trusting in shield and spear, in bow and sling. They
do not know that you are the Lord who crushes wars; the Lord is your
your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the
powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed,
upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without
Judith Prepares to Face Holofernes: Chapter 10
When Judith had
stopped crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these
went out to the town gate of Bethulia and found Uzziah standing there
with the elders of the town, Chabris and Charmis.
said to them, ‘Order the gate of the town to be opened for me so that
I may go out and accomplish the things you have just said to me.’ So
they ordered the young men to open the gate for her, as she
Judith is Taken Prisoner
were going straight on through the valley, an Assyrian patrol met
When the men heard her words, and observed her face—she was in their
eyes marvellously beautiful—they said to her,
They chose from their number a hundred men to accompany her and her
maid, and they brought them to the tent of Holofernes.
Judith Meets Holofernes Face to Face
guards of Holofernes and all his servants came out and led her into the
1 Then Holofernes
said to her, ‘Take courage, woman, and do not be afraid in your heart,
for I have never hurt anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of
all the earth.
Judith explains her presence
answered him, ‘Accept the words of your slave, and let your servant
speak in your presence. I will say nothing false to my lord this night.
‘Now as for Achior’s speech in your council, we have heard his
words, for the people of Bethulia spared him and he told them all he had
said to you.
now, in order that my lord may not be defeated and his purpose
frustrated, death will fall upon them, for a sin has overtaken them by
which they are about to provoke their God to anger when they do what is
I, your slave, learned all this, I fled from them. God has sent me to
accomplish with you things that will astonish the whole world wherever
people shall hear about them.
Her words pleased Holofernes
and all his servants. They marveled at her wisdom and said,
Judith is the Guest of Holofernes: Chapter 12
commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and
ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and
with some of his own wine to drink.
5 Then the servants of Holofernes brought her into the tent, and she slept until midnight. Towards the morning watch she got up
and sent this message to Holofernes: ‘Let my lord now give
orders to allow your servant to go out and pray.’
Judith Attends Holofernes' Banquet
On the fourth day Holofernes held a banquet for his personal attendants
only, and did not invite any of his officers.
So Bagoas left the presence of Holofernes, and approached her and said,
‘Let this pretty girl not hesitate to come to my lord to be honoured
in his presence, and to enjoy drinking wine with us, and to become today
like one of the Assyrian women who serve in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.’
Judith came in and lay down. Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her
and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity
to seduce her from the day he first saw her.
Judith Beheads Holofernes: Chapter 13
evening came, his slaves quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from
outside and shut out the attendants from his master’s presence. They
went to bed, for they all were weary because the banquet had lasted so
Now Judith had told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and to wait
for her to come out, as she did on the other days; for she said she
would be going out for her prayers. She had said the same thing to
up to the bedpost near Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that
Judith Returns to Bethulia
Then the two of them went
out together, as they were accustomed to do for prayer. They passed
through the camp, circled around the valley, and went up the mountain to
Bethulia, and came to its gates.
When the people of her town heard her voice, they hurried
down to the town gate and summoned the elders of the town.
Then she pulled the head out of the bag and showed it to
them, and said, ‘See here, the head of Holofernes, the commander of
the Assyrian army, and here is the canopy beneath which he lay in his
drunken stupor. The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a
17 All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down and worshipped God, and said with one accord, ‘Blessed are you our God, who have this day humiliated the enemies of your people.’
Then Uzziah said to her, ‘O daughter, you are
blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed
be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided
you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies.
Judith Tells Them What to Do: Chapter 14
Then Judith said
to them, ‘Listen to me, my friends. Take this head and hang it upon
the parapet of your wall.
So they summoned Achior from the house of Uzziah. When he came and saw
the head of Holofernes in the hand of one of the men in the assembly of
the people, he fell down on his face in a faint.
So Judith told him in the
presence of the people all that she had done, from the day she left
until the moment she began speaking to them.
Holofernes' Death is Discovered
As soon as it was dawn they hung the head of Holofernes on the wall.
Then they all took their weapons, and they went out in companies to the
So Bagoas went in and knocked at the entry of the tent, for
he supposed that he was sleeping with Judith.
19 When the leaders of the Assyrian army heard this, they tore their tunics and were greatly dismayed, and their loud cries and shouts rose up throughout the camp.
The Assyrian Army Flees in Panic: Chapter 15
When the men in
the tents heard it, they were amazed at what had happened.
Victory for the Israelites
Then the high priest Joakim and the elders of the
Israelites who lived in Jerusalem came to witness the good things that
the Lord had done for Israel, and to see Judith and to wish her
11 All the people plundered the camp for thirty days. They gave Judith the tent of Holofernes and all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture. She took them and loaded her mules and hitched up her carts and piled the things on them.
women of Israel gathered to see her, and blessed her, and some of them
performed a dance in her honour. She took ivy-wreathed wands in her
hands and distributed them to the women who were with her;
Judith's Song of Triumph: Chapter 16
And Judith said,
Beloved Judith Grows Old and Dies
After this they all returned home to their own
inheritances. Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate. For
the rest of her life she was honored throughout the whole
Bible Art: Paintings and Artworks from the Old and New Testament - Bible Study Resource: Judith and Holofernes, Judith prays to God and saves her people