(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

Judith and Holofernes

Fresco, 570 x 970 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

Judith was a patriotic heroine and a symbol of the Jews' struggle against their ancient oppressors in the near east. She is usually shown holding the head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, whom she has decapitated with a sword.

The Assyrian army had laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. When the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a rich and beautiful widow, devised a scheme to save them. She adorned herself 'so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her' (O.T. Apocrypha 10:5), and set off with her maid into the Assyrian lines. By the pretence of having deserted her people she gained access to the enemy commander, Holofernes, and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for overcoming the Jews. After she had been several days in the camp Holofernes became enamoured of her and planned a banquet to which she was invited. When it was over and they were alone together he had meant to seduce her, but he was by then overcome with liquor. This was Judith's opportunity. She quickly seized his sword and with two swift blows severed his head. Her maid was ready with a sack into which they put the head. They then made their way through the camp and back to Bethulia before the deed was discovered. The news threw the Assyrians into disarray and they fled, pursued by the Israelites.

Several episodes from the story have been illustrated in art, but the commonest shows Judith with the severed head of Holofernes, usually accompanied by her maid who holds a sack. The image of Judith occurs first in the Middle Ages as an example of virtue overcoming vice and may be associated with the allegorical figure of Humility. She is also widely depicted in the Renaissance when her victory sometimes forms a companion-picture to Samson and Delilah and Aristotle and Campaspe. Such juxtaposing suggests that the theme was then regarded as an allegory of man's misfortunes at the hands of a scheming woman. In Counter-Reformation art the theme surprisingly prefigures the Visitation, as an expression of victory over sin.

Michelangelo's representation of the scene is interpreted either as the symbol of the liberty or the personification of the triumphant Church.

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