Judith and Holofernes by Donatello

Donatello

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

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Piety and Patriotism

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. 

 

References

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


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