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
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.