Judith with the Head of Holofernes Elisabetta Sirani

Elisabetta Sirani

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

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Valour and Virtue

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.

 

References

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


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