Today on Museum Bites we’re celebrating biblical badass, Judith of Bethulia. Clever, pious, and downright ruthless Judith saved her city with a mix of charm and brute force. She has inspired artists throughout the ages and her portrayals have ranged from dainty and devout to bold and bloodthirsty. Join me for a brief look at three interpretations of the mighty Judith, but first a little background…
Hey Jude: The legend of Judith begins with the Assyrian army marching toward Jerusalem with plans to invade. In their wake, villages and cities were left ravaged and burned, until they came upon Bethulia. The citizens put up a valiant fight, but after having their water supply cut off for 34 days, city officials began making plans to surrender.
Upon hearing this news, Judith chastised the town’s leaders telling them they must keep up the good fight because God was testing them. Town leaders brushed aside her concerns and told her to pray for rain. Instead, Judith concocted a plan. She threw off her widow’s garb, donned her best gown, and snuck out of town. By design, she was captured by the Assyrian army and brought before their leader, Holofernes. Judith confessed she was fleeing her doomed city, flattering the enemy commander with talk of his imminent victory. Holofernes took a shine to the beautiful widow and invited her to his tent where he proceeded to get roaring drunk. No doubt with some encouragement from Judith.
Holofernes eventually passed out and Judith used his sword to cut off his head. With the help of her maid, she stashed Holofernes’s noggin in a sack and they whisked it back to Bethulia. The next day, the Assyrians discovered their leader’s severed head perched on the city wall. Terrified they ran like hellfire. Bethulia and Jerusalem were saved and Judith was praised for her heroism. She lived to age 105 and according to legend, there were no attacks on the Israelites during the rest of her life. Following are a few examples of how the formidable Judith has been depicted in art.
Barefoot & Bronzed: Our first Judith was crafted from bronze by Italian artist, Antonio di Jacopo Pollaiuolo (c1432-1498) and is on display at the Detroit Institute of Art. Barefoot and brandishing Holofernes’s scimitar in a victorious salute, Pollaiuolo’s Judith is exquisite. From her Mona Lisa smile, long, delicate fingers, to the windblown folds in her dress, this Judith has a breezy, flower child vibe.
An engraver, goldsmith, painter and sculptor, Antonio often collaborated on large works of art with his younger brother, Piero (1443-1496). Darlings of the Italian elite, they crafted works for the powerful Medici family, as well as Popes Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII. Statuettes, similar to this rendition of Judith, were common among Florentine artists during this era, not only for their beauty but for study. If you’d like to learn more about Antonio’s life and work, click on this Antonio di Jacopo Pollaiuolo link.
Judge Judy: Italian artist, Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-c1656) portrayal of Judith has a more murdery tone. On display at Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, Gentileschi’s painting portrays the butchery and brute force needed to decapitate Holofernes. Sleeves rolled up and arms flexed, Judith and her maid work together to complete the grisly task. Blood spurts from his neck and soaks the sheets as Holofernes tries to fend them off. But these ladies are determined, not unlike Artemisia.
Artemisia was a rare female artist in a field and era dominated by men. She was initially trained by her father, Italian Baroque painter, Orazio (1562-1639). But when Artemisia turned 17, her father hired fellow painter, Agostino Tassi to tutor his talented daughter. Tassi took advantage of the situation and raped the young Artemisia. Her father took the unprecedented step of taking Tassi to court. He was eventually found guilty, but not after Artemisia and to endure an invasive gynecological exam to prove her virginity prior to the rape. Officials also applied thumb screws in an effort to torture the truth out of her.
Artemisia survived the ordeal and continued to paint, becoming the first woman to be accepted into the prestigious Academy of Arts and Drawing in Florence. Her work was subsequently commissioned by kings, queens and the powerful Medici family. Later in life she collaborated on several projects with her father. Click on this Artemisia Gentileschi link if you’d like to learn more about her life and work.
Ballroom Blitz: Our final Judith was painted by Flemish painter, Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and is also on display at Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi. Rubens depicts a bejeweled and princessy Judith post decapitation calmly stuffing Holoferenes’s head in a sack with the help of her no nonsense maid. There’s no horror, no gore, only scant traces of blood being blessedly sopped up by the bag. Despite Judith’s girlish flush, Rubens makes the entire event look rather mundane. Judith can sashay out of the camp in her fancy gown with the Assyrians being none the wiser.
Prolific and popular, Rubens oversaw one of the largest art studios in Europe. His paintings often feature religious and mythological themes in bold splashes of colors. The women, especially the nudes, are lusty and voluptuous thus coining the term, Rubenesque. In addition to his art, Rubens served as a diplomat and was knighted by not one, but two kings, Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. Click on this Pieter Paul Rubens link to learn more about his life and work.
That concludes our brief look at the mighty Judith. Next week we’ll take a tour through the Galileo Museum in Florence Italy. Until then, stay cool and have a fantastic week!
Cover photo by JP Verb (2019).
Britannica: Intertestamental Literature
Britannica: Pollaiuolo Brothers
Detroit Institute of Art: Judith
Google Arts & Culture: Peter Paul Rubens
Jewish Women’s Archive: Judith Apocrypha
The Art Story: Artemisia Gentileschi
The Art Story: Peter Paul Rubens
Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi: Judith Beheading Holofernes