(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

The Return of Judith to Bethulia

c. 1472
Oil on panel, 31 x 24 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The picture was probably created in pendant with The Discovery of the Murder of Holofernes; both of them are documented at the end of 16th century in Medicean collections, where entered as a gift received by Bianca Cappello, the second wife of Grand Duke Francesco I. The small scale of the paintings indicates that they were not intended as decoration for a piece of furniture. We know from contemporary inventories that paintings of similarly small dimensions were kept as precious objects in caskets or leather cases, to be admired at close proximity or shown to friends on special occasions. The miniature-like delicacy and detailed execution, conceived for close-range observation, leads to the supposition that the little panels were intended for just such a purpose.

The Biblical tale of Judith, who slew Holofernes, the Assyrian king's commander-in-chief, because he represented a deadly threat for the Hebrews in Bethulia, was one of the favourite subjects of the Florentine Renaissance. Judith was considered the prototype of female strength, since she alone had summoned up the courage to murder the tyrant. In The Return of Judith to Bethulia, Botticelli shows us Judith together with Abra, her maid, the two of them striding out in a well-nigh furious manner. Abra is carrying Holofernes' severed head on her own head, while Judith has an olive branch in her hand as a symbol of peace, which she is bringing to the Hebrews. Botticelli has succeeded here in capturing both movement and stillness in a unique balance. Judith is pausing a moment in her striding forward to turn towards the observer, self-assured if not without a touch of melancholy, exactly as if she wished to present herself as the victor.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 17 minutes):
Alessandro Scarlatti: La Giuditta, oratorio, Part I (excerpts)