Judith by Giorgione


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

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Sex and Violence

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

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