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Insight: the story of Judith and Holofernes

This category, Insight, shall provide you with the biblical or mythological stories depicted in the artworks discussed on Spoonful of Art.

Let’s begin with the story of Judith and Holofernes, as seen in the work of Caravaggio (post December 17, 2015).
Who are they? And why does their encounter end in such a brutal way?

The story of this famous duo is told in the deuterocanonical* bible book of Judith, in which the a period of battle between the Israelites and the Assyrians is described.

King Nebukadnessar of Assyria want to conquer Judea, the land of the Israelites. He sends his  commander-in-chief Holofernes to the city of Betulia, to force the Israelites to worship Nebukadnessar as their god.

This is where Judith, a beautiful jong widow, enters the story. Just before the Israelites are about to surrender to Holofernes, she and her slave enter the base of the Assyrians and meet the commander. He is very charmed by her beauty. Judith gets Holofernes drunk, making him feel sleepy.

Just as Holofernes wants to lie down for a nap, Judith strikes. She takes his sword, grabs Holofernes’ head by his hair and prays to her god to give her strength. Then, in two strikes, she cuts off his head. She hands over the head to her slave, who puts it in a travel bag.

The Assyrians panic and flee the area. Judith returns to her city a true hero.

Source: De Nieuwe Bijbelvertaling. Em. Querido’s Uitgeverij BV & Uitgeverij Jongbloed, 2004.

*Deuterocanonical: Roman-Catholic bibles contain certain number of books as part of the Old Testament, that are not considered as part of the bible by Protestants. The book of Judith is one of those.

For some other fine examples of this particular subject depicted in art, see below the works of Johann Liss (c. 1595- c. 1630) and Artemisa Gentileschi (Rome, 1593-1652).

the story of Judith and Holofernes
Johann Liss, Judith in the tent of Holofernes, c. 1622. Oil on canvas, 128.5 x 99 cm. The National Gallery, London.
Artemisia Gentileschi Judith slaying Holofernes
Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Oil on canvas, 1.99 x 1.63 cm. Uffizi, Florence.


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