Judith 16

Judith’s Song

Commentaries by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

Works of art by Donatello, Elisabetta Sirani and Giorgione

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Judith and Holofernes, c.1457–64, Bronze, height 236 cm, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence; Scala / Art Resource, NY

Piety and Patriotism

Commentary by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

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Commenting on Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings of the biblical hero Judith, the French literary critic Roland Barthes (1979) identified her story ‘[a]s a strong narrative’ which has ‘exploded over the centuries, into every possible form’ in the arts. In the Douay–Rheims 1899 translation (DRA), the extraordinary elements of this story coalesce into the phrase ‘delivered him into the hands of a woman’ (16:7). Our normative understandings of power and male/female relationships are turned upside down as the lesser physical stature of a woman destroys male potency.

Donatello’s sculptural visualization of 16:8–13 emphasizes Judith’s act of beheading Holofernes, the enemy of her people—her sword raised in her right hand. But a host of other key elements of this story are also incorporated by the artist, from Judith’s ‘garments of joy’ down to the sandal which ‘ravished’ (Greek: hērpasen) Holofernes’s eyes (16:9, 11 DRA). These sandalled feet crush the Assyrian general’s right hand and genitals, completing her conquest.

The Classical motif of victory—of the male champion standing atop the vanquished—seems inverted as female frailty conquers male authority. Yet, both the calm composure of her facial expression and her earlier (and ensuing) acts of piety and consecration (chapters 9 and 16) confirm that even as she is presented in the moment of her most defining physical action, Judith is a model of faith in God. Hers is not an act of personal retribution or bloodthirsty aggression, as she is the vehicle through which God saved the city of Bethulia at the cost of only one life.

Like other biblical heroes, Judith and her story are read, re-read, and re-envisioned by both artists and theologians throughout the millennia of Jewish and Christian history. Although Donatello’s statue was originally commissioned by Cosimo de' Medici for his family palace in Florence it was later removed to the Piazza in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (the City Hall) after the expulsion of the Medici and the new rule of the Florentine Republic under the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

In this ‘translation’, Donatello’s Judith became something more than what she was before (whether an expression of Renaissance theology or an example of artistic vision). She became an emblem of a people’s resistance to tyranny. Like David in the face of Goliath, she embodied the triumph of the underdog—a patriotic moment in Florentine society that gave birth to dramatic visions of Florence as a New Jerusalem. 



Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. 2010. ‘Costuming Judith in Italian Art of the Sixteenth Century’, in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, ed. by Kevin R. Brine, Elen Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers), pp. 325–44

Barthes, Roland, et al. 1979. Word for Word—Artemisia No. 02, Trilingual edition (English/French/Italian) (Paris: Yvon Lambert)

McHam, Sarah Blake. 2010. ‘Donatello’s Judith as the Emblem of God’s Chosen People’, in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines, ed. by Kevin R. Brine, Elen Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers), pp. 307–24

Elisabetta Sirani

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1658, Oil on canvas, 236.5 x 183 cm, Burghley House, Linconshire; PIC304, Bridgeman Images

Valour and Virtue

Commentary by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

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The climactic episode of Judith’s narrative was the moment of her triumphal display of the decapitated head of Holofernes to the people of her besieged city, Bethulia. The seventeenth-century Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani selected this unusual passage enhanced with a series of Classical and biblical symbols to heighten the significance of this singular woman and her role in later Christian tradition as a Marian foretype.

Judith reveals her trophy in a dramatic night scene as two young acolytes carrying torches—one lit and one apparently just extinguished—seek to supplement the light from a white crescent moon in the upper left corner.

Dressed in the manner of the elegant ladies of seventeenth-century Bologna, Judith stands in the crepuscular light drawing attention to the left side of her body, including the raised hem of her garment revealing her ravishing sandals (Judith 16:9). A Classical symbol for the chaste and virtuous Greek goddess Artemis, the crescent moon subsequently became fundamental to the iconography of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Judith’s monumental scale and dignified bearing are also reminiscent of Athena, another ancient Greek virgin goddess (of wisdom and war). She too was adopted by Christians as a foretype of Mary. The elegant gold brooch on Judith’s breast is decorated with the head of the dreaded Medusa, the gorgon of Greek mythology. The Greek hero Perseus gave Medusa’s decapitated head to Athena who incorporated it onto Aegis, her shield, to strengthen her invincibility in battle. Mary was often identified as the defender of cities, churches, and monasteries, and thereby—like Judith and Athena—was imagined as a female warrior. Sirani’s emphasis on Judith’s dignity and monumentality further connects her to the symbolism of Mary as Mater Ecclesia.

By emphasizing Judith’s triumphant return to Bethulia, Sirani eliminates any deliberation of wanton sexuality or physical violence. Judith and her action are representative of the valour and virtue normally associated with a male hero. Hers are the powerful hands of a woman who has saved her people while maintaining her integrity.



Bohn, Babette. 2002. ‘The Antique Heroines of Elisabetta Sirani’, Renaissance Studies 16.1: 52–79

Harris, Ann Sutherland. 2010. ‘Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani: Rivals or Strangers?’, Women’s Art Journal 31.1: 3–12


Judith, 1504, Oil on canvas, 144 x 66 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; ГЭ-95, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Images

Sex and Violence

Commentary by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

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While the episode of the beheading of Holofernes might define the story of Judith, Giorgione transformed her from a pious widow and patriotic hero into a vision of female sexuality. Nonetheless he remained constant to the biblical narrative—a narrative that biblical interpreters and feminist scholars have argued is layered with eroticism and the scriptural idea of retribution for sexual violation. (Given the predilection for sex and violence in many scriptural texts, it is no wonder that filmmakers and performance artists have so favoured the Bible as a sourcebook.)

Giorgione’s female hero stands alone as she performs her deadly mission within a vertical composition that emphasizes the unusual relationship between her feminine form and the upright sword paralleling her body. In a traditional biblical format, Judith stands between the garden and the desert—a division emphasized by both the deep rose silken mantle that plummets in elaborate folds down her right side and her paler pink silk underdress with a high slit that reveals her left leg.

Her left foot is exposed and naked; her right leg and foot is hidden from view.

While her left foot rests on the decapitated head of Holofernes, the viewer’s eye is captured by the exposed leg. While not unknown in depictions of Classical female figures, this new visual element signified both sexuality and rape as we see in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) versions of Judith 9. Judith in her prayer in 9:2 recalls the rape of Dinah, the sister of Judith’s ancestor Simeon (Genesis 34), as well as the punishments visited on the offending Canaanites in retribution (‘thou gavest their wives for a prey’ 9:4 RSV).

The oversized sword displayed by Judith both echoes and reverses the violence perpetrated by powerful men on frailer women. It is a clear reminder that injustices perpetrated by the powerful are not simply issues of the contemporary ‘#MeToo’ Movement but one that is as old as the Bible. Victims of assault might find solace or a role model of spiritual strength and female courage in the image of Judith.



Anderson, Jaynie. 1997. Giorgione: The Painter of ‘Poetic Brevity’: Including catalogue raisonné (Paris: Flammarion), see especially Chapter 5, ‘Giorgione’s Imagery of Women’

Białostocki, Jan. 1988. ‘Judith: Story, Image, and Symbol. Giorgione’s Painting in the Evolution of the Theme’, in The Message of Images: Studies in the History of Art, Bibliotheca Artibus et Historiae (Vienna: IRSA), pp. 113–31

Donatello :

Judith and Holofernes, c.1457–64 , Bronze

Elisabetta Sirani :

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1658 , Oil on canvas

Giorgione :

Judith, 1504 , Oil on canvas

‘Into the hands of a woman’

Comparative commentary by Diane Apostolos-Cappadona

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While images might be characterized simply as ‘illustrating’ a biblical story such as the book of Judith, they are fundamentally bearers of messages and elicitors of responses that expand the borders of the written text.

Only three of the biblical books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of Scripture are identified by the names of women: Esther, Ruth, and Judith. (The well-known story of Susanna is an addition to the book of Daniel while Jael, Tamar, Deborah, and Miriam—despite being illustrious Old Testament female heroes—are ‘players’ within a larger arena dedicated either to male prophets or heroes.)

Among all of these named women, Judith may be the most politically engaged, spiritually accomplished, and autonomous in her activities. Thereby she is both the most complex and the most fascinating to artists, since Judith can be explored as beautiful, wealthy, intelligent, pious, and chaste while as a widow she is simultaneously sexually knowledgeable and available.

Hers, then, is a story that could be characterized as a ‘load bearing’ one, capable of significant cultural, political, and theological meaning. Visual artists view her through lenses that are coloured by distinctive cultural moments, changing socio-political contexts, and evolving theological categories. Judith is a woman who represents different modes of female agency throughout the millennia of biblical history, re-envisioned from virtuous widow to Marian foretype to cunning woman to seductress and femme fatale.

Donatello’s was an early Renaissance reformulation of medieval Christian renditions of Judith as pious widow and chaste warrior, but in this reformulation he endowed his Judith with future possibilities as well. A Florence caught some decades later between the ‘tyranny’ of the Medici and the sermons of the republican Savonarola would come to see in her actions a personification of democracy and the city. Patriotism combined with piety.

Giorgione moves Judith’s transformation into the early modern world by emphasizing both the reality and the power of female sexuality. In showing her victory, Giorgione invites the viewer to consider how she accomplished it, cunningly using her physical beauty, as well as her words and actions, to triumph over her enemy (Judith 10:4). 

Elisabetta Sirani encourages the recognition of female valour, bravery, and wisdom as her Judith rises to the societal and cultural challenges of a world—and of a Catholicism—at the border of the modern.

All three artworks in this exhibition have a common interest in Judith’s body language—specifically her extended left leg. Donatello creates a zigzag path for his viewer’s eye from the gleaming gilt of her upraised sword down toward her bent right elbow, and across the mid-body bindings formed from the canopy ripped from Holofernes’s bed. Her lowered left forearm then crosses back in front of her, where it grasps the almost decapitated head that awaits the second stroke of her sword. Finally, in one further diagonal, our eye continues down her extended left leg to her sandal, as she incapacitates his powerful right hand. Liberated from Medici ownership and placed in Savonarola’s public square, she acquires new force as the veiled and covered virtuous woman who destroys the tyrant oppressing God’s chosen people; a symbol for those Florentines who saw their mission as the purification of the Italian city states from the legacy of the Medici.

Giorgione’s painted image of Judith clearly emphasizes the Classical hero whose face is calm and still even as her downward gaze highlights her extended left leg and her trophy: the head of her enemy. This leg has a sexual charge, on which Giorgione plays (perhaps tempting viewers to share the libidinous response of Holofernes; Judith 12:16). But Giorgione may also build on the opening verses of Judith 9 (LXX), showing a vengeful victim whose city and people are being ‘raped’ by the Assyrians. This too might explain the significance in this work of Judith’s bare leg and sandal-less foot—for the rapist, in the Septuagintal text (and in Judith’s words), is one who ‘uncover[s] the thigh’ (9:2 LXX) of his victim.

Sirani’s Judith likewise extends her left leg which, although covered, appears ‘exposed’ by the clarity of the light on that side of the painting. Further, her upraised underdress highlights her ravishing sandals (16:9 LXX) with her foot positioned in a style reminiscent of Donatello’s Judith. This depiction is singular in the artist’s emphasis on Judith’s power and strength. As opposed to the downward sightline of both Donatello’s and Giorgione’s renditions, Sirani’s hero holds her head high as she looks outward at the viewer. She is neither object nor subject of the male gaze. She is an agent who invades more than she engages her viewer and his space. Boundaries are expanded, limits are renegotiated, as Judith challenges us to rethink the meaning of her story and its application in our own reading of the Bible.



Barthes, Roland, et al. 1979. Word for Word—Artemisia No. 02, Trilingual edition (English/French/Italian) (Paris: Yvon Lambert)

Brine, Kevin R., Elen Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (eds). 2010. The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies Across the Disciplines (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers)

Straussman-Pflanzer, Eve. 2014. Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes (New Haven: Yale University Press)


Next exhibition: Ecclesiasticus 3:1-31

Judith 16

Revised Standard Version

16 Then Judith began this thanksgiving before all Israel, and all the people loudly sang this song of praise. 2And Judith said,

Begin a song to my God with tambourines,

sing to my Lord with cymbals.

Raise to him a new psalm;

exalt him, and call upon his name.

3For God is the Lord who crushes wars;

for he has delivered me out of the hands of my pursuers,

and brought me into his camp, in the midst of the people.

4The Assyrian came down from the mountains of the north;

he came with myriads of his warriors;

their multitude blocked up the valleys,

their cavalry covered the hills.

5He boasted that he would burn up my territory,

and kill my young men with the sword,

and dash my infants to the ground

and seize my children as prey,

and take my virgins as booty.

6But the Lord Almighty has foiled them

by the hand of a woman.

7For their mighty one did not fall by the hands of the young men,

nor did the sons of the Titans smite him,

nor did tall giants set upon him;

but Judith the daughter of Merarʹi undid him

with the beauty of her countenance.

8For she took off her widow’s mourning

to exalt the oppressed in Israel.

She anointed her face with ointment

and fastened her hair with a tiara

and put on a linen gown to deceive him.

9Her sandal ravished his eyes,

her beauty captivated his mind,

and the sword severed his neck.

10The Persians trembled at her boldness,

the Medes were daunted at her daring.

11Then my oppressed people shouted for joy;

my weak people shouted and the enemy trembled;

they lifted up their voices, and the enemy were turned back.

12The sons of maidservants have pierced them through;

they were wounded like the children of fugitives,

they perished before the army of my Lord.

13I will sing to my God a new song:

O Lord, thou are great and glorious,

wonderful in strength, invincible.

14Let all thy creatures serve thee,

for thou didst speak, and they were made.

Thou didst send forth thy Spirit, and it formed them;

there is none that can resist thy voice.

15For the mountains shall be shaken to their foundations with the waters;

at thy presence the rocks shall melt like wax,

but to those who fear thee

thou wilt continue to show mercy.

16For every sacrifice as a fragrant offering is a small thing,

and all fat for burnt offerings to thee is a very little thing,

but he who fears the Lord shall be great for ever.

17Woe to the nations that rise up against my people!

The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment;

fire and worms he will give to their flesh;

they shall weep in pain for ever.

18 When they arrived at Jerusalem they worshiped God. As soon as the people were purified, they offered their burnt offerings, their freewill offerings, and their gifts. 19Judith also dedicated to God all the vessels of Holoferʹnes, which the people had given her; and the canopy which she took for herself from his bedchamber she gave as a votive offering to the Lord. 20So the people continued feasting in Jerusalem before the sanctuary for three months, and Judith remained with them.

21 After this every one returned home to his own inheritance, and Judith went to Bethuʹlia, and remained on her estate, and was honored in her time throughout the whole country. 22Many desired to marry her, but she remained a widow all the days of her life after Manasʹseh her husband died and was gathered to his people. 23She became more and more famous, and grew old in her husband’s house, until she was one hundred and five years old. She set her maid free. She died in Bethuʹlia, and they buried her in the cave of her husband Manasʹseh, 24and the house of Israel mourned for her seven days. Before she died she distributed her property to all those who were next of kin to her husband Manasʹseh, and to her own nearest kindred. 25And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her death.