Judith Slaying Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi  Oil on Canvas  1620

I have to admit, until recently, I had no idea the story of Judith slaying Holofernes had anything to do with Hanukkah.  I’m awfully glad that there is a connection, because I’ve been wondering how I was going to work this painting into my calendar.  It’s really not clear if it has any actual relation to Hanukkah at all, but it seems that in some cultures, the story of Judith (or Yehudit) is told on Hanukkah as an example of Jewish faith and courage overcoming a larger force.

The story of Judith can be found in the Apocrypha, as she didn’t make the cut in either Jewish texts or the Protestant Old Testament.  The Book of Judith is considered canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  It’s easy to jump to the “it was excluded because it’s about a female hero” reasoning, but it’s more likely because it is incredibly historically inaccurate (even for the first or second century BCE), and is generally considered a parable or possibly even the first historical fiction.  (She says Nebuchadnezzar is the King of Assyria, but he was actually Babylonian.)  Regardless, it’s a wonderful piece of literature and a great heroine story.

You should definitely take the time to read the story of Judith yourself, but here is the super abridged version.

Judith was a widow living in the Israelite town of Bethulia.  Holofernes and his army of Assyrians besieged the town by cutting off the mountain pass and access to water.  In thirty four days the town ran out of water.

The townspeople gathered and tried to persuade the town elder, Uzziah, to surrender.  Surely they would all die if not.  A devout man, Uzziah persuades the townspeople to have faith for five more days,  their God would provide.

When Judith heard the Uzziah put a timeline on her God to rescue them, she was appalled.  In chapter 8:12 she says, ” 12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn?” She actually tears into the leaders with a very lengthy speech, but you get the idea.

So Judith takes matters into her own hands.  She vows that before the five days have passed, the Lord will use her to rescue her people.  One little thing–no questions asked.  Uzziah agrees.

She prays (again, quite lengthy).  She says in chapter 9:9 “I am only a widow, but give me the strength to carry out my plan. 10 Use my deceitful words to strike them all dead, master and slave alike. Let a woman’s strength break their pride.”

Judith had been in mourning for her husband for three years and four months.  She wore ony a sackcloth.  Although she was very beautiful, she did not adorn herself.  That is, of course, until the night she went to the camp of Holofernes.  You can guess what happens next.

She put on her most beautiful clothing and jewelry, adorned herself with ribbons in her hair.  Although she had fasted while in mourning, she and her slave now carried wine, roasted barley, dried figs and delicious bread.  She convinced the guards, not only with her beauty, but with her wit and wisdom, that she was indeed Hebrew, but was running away because their God had abandoned them.  Surely they would all perish any day now.

Over the course of the next four days, Judith beguiled not only Holofernes, but his guards and servants as well.  They were not guarded and could do as they wished.  All the while, Judith was careful to keep with her faith, praying and eating only what her slave prepared for her.

So of course, the time came for action.  It’s an old story.  Woman meets man.  Man lusts for woman.  Woman plays along.  Man gets drunk.  Woman slices off man’s head and saves her city from certain destruction.  Again, the actual Book of Judith is probably where you should read the story.  It really is a great story of faith, conviction, bravery, and well, gore.

Artemisia Gentileschi has an equally riveting story.  The daughter of an artist in early 17th century, it was soon apparent her talent outshined that of her father, who himself was a well-respected painter and contemporary of Caravaggio.  Although not unheard of, it was rare for a female artist to succeed.  Her father recognized her great talent and did what he could to help in her success.

When she surpassed him in skill, he arranged for an apprenticeship with Agostino Tassi, another well-respected artist.  However, Tassi raped the 17-year-old Artemisia,  at which time the girl yelled out for her female chaperone, the only adult female figure in her life.  The woman ignored her cries, and many believed had even colluded with Tassi before the rape.

What followed was a very long, drawn out, gruelling  seven month trial when Tassi refused to marry Artemisia after taking her virginity.  Apparently, the gynecological examination she was forced to endure wasn’t proof enough.   She was subjected to torture, actual, literal torture of thumbscrews to “verify” her testimony.  At the time, there was only a case if the victim was a virgin.

Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison.  He never served any time.  Many people look at her paintings and see the anger, the bitterness, the hurt, the betrayal.  But what I mostly see in this painting is resolve.  The expression of Judith’s face isn’t menacing, it’s determined.  In her mind, he’s getting exactly what he deserves.

Artemisia Gentileschi actually did two versions of this painting.  This is the second, and I believe the superior of the two, now found in the Uffizi.  Although both have the amazing Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, she just seems to have worked it out a bit more in the later version.  The proportions are better, the shadows are deeper, and the blood, oh, the blood.  Notice in the second painting the blood spraying from Holofernes’ neck.  Yeah, I’m betting she also believed he was getting what he deserved.

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Left-1611  Right 1620

In addition to these two paintings of Judith, she also painted the glorious Judith and Maidservant in 1613.  And truly, this is my favorite of all Judith paintings by any artist.  Although it doesn’t show the act of slicing his neck, it shows something better–Judith’s wisdom.

Most paintings of this moment show Judith or her servant holding the head by its hair, ala David and Goliath.  However, that’s not how it happens in the story.  Although Judith had the run of the camp, I don’t think she could have made it back to town swinging the head of the leader of the army around.

That’s why her plan was so genius.  The guards were used to her slave carrying a basket, as Judith would only eat her food.  No one even noticed when they strolled out of camp with a little something extra.

Not your typical Hanukkah story, I know.  But I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Judith and Artemisia Gentileschi on your own.  Maybe you can add (possibly a less gory version) to your Hanukkah tradition.  Happy Hanukkah!

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