Judith with the Head of Holofernes

So here’s a thing you may see at museums: lovely ladies with luscious locks with a chopped off head in tow.

It’s a strangely common trope. Once you notice it, you’ll see it everywhere. Who are these women? Why are they chopping off dudes heads and looking quite chummy about it, too?

I think why this subject is historically popular is because of its nature. It’s a juxtaposition of elegance and horror, beauty and violence. And it’s certainly eye-catching. Like Mary and Mary, there’s some overlap with these two Biblical figures. So I’ll show you how to tell the main two women, Judith and Salome, apart. Then we’ll get into sexual politics. The first post is about Judith.

Judith

Meet my girl, Judith. She’s a biblical heroine.

Lucas_Cranach_d._Ä._-_Judith_Victorious_-_WGA05720

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach, 1530

The widowed Judith saved the Hebrew city of Bethulia. She seduced and killed the enemy general, Holofernes. She used her beauty to entrance Holofernes, get in his tent, and liquor him up. Once he was in a stupour Judith used his sword to cut off his head. Snicker-snack.

So how can we tell a painting is of Judith and not another decapitator like Salome?

  1. Judith almost always carries a sword.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Simon Vouet, 17th century

She used Holofernes own sword to chop off his head. Basically the epitome of disgrace and lost manhood.

Nuvolone_Judith_with_the_head_of_Holofernes

Sometimes it’s just a glint in the shadow. But more often than not that “sword” is around.

2. Often Judith’s loyal maid attends her.

The maid can be onlooking the murder or helping with it. Notably, the maid is often older than Judith and not making eye contact with the viewer.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Cristofano Allori, 1613

3. There’s a beheadin’ goin’ on.

Judith herself cut off Holofernes head. She’s the agent here. And often artists show this moment in gruesome detail.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, 1598-9

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614 - 20

Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1614 – 20

Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes, Trophime Bigot, 1640

Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes, Trophime Bigot, 1640

Lordy.

 

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