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
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.