Judith: the original femme fatale
In the Old Testament’s Book of Judith, the beautiful widow saved the besieged city of Bethulia by charming her way into the tent of Assyrian general Holofernes and beheading him, enabling the Israelites to defeat the invading army.
The Artstor Digital Library features more than 600 images depicting the story of Judith and Holofernes, attesting to the powerful appeal the Judith narrative has over artists. The Jessica E. Smith and Kevin R. Brine Charitable Trust sponsored 330 new images to be added to the Digital Library’s existing 300 images based on the story. Images on the theme range from an 11th century illuminated manuscript to an unnerving tableau by Judith Greifinger Klausner from 2008 that features insects playing the parts of the two characters.
Judith’s story of a weaker opponent beating a superior enemy echoes the more familiar story of David and Goliath, in which the much smaller David forgoes armor and sword and defeats the enormous Philistine warrior with a slingshot, then cuts off his head. His action, like Judith’s, demoralizes the enemy and leads the Israelites to triumph. Indeed, both tales have been represented similarly in art, with the victor serenely observing the head of the rival, or presenting it to the viewer.
Closer still in its outlines is the story of Jael in the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Bible. Sisera, captain of the Canaanite army of King Jabin, fled the battle against Israel. Jael welcomed him into her tent at the settlement of Heber and served him milk, and when Sisera fell asleep, Jael drove a tent peg through his temples with a mallet, leading again to Israel’s victory.
The combination of sexual allure and violence also accounts for the popularity of the subject. Interestingly, some images of the story of Salome and John the Baptist are virtually indistinguishable from those of Judith and Holofernes,
though in many ways the messages are opposite. (In the example above, the painting of Salome is based directly on an earlier painting of Judith.) In the New Testament, Salome dances before King Herod, and he, smitten, promises her anything she wants. Following her mother’s orders, she asks for the head of John the Baptist served in a platter. The two stories present both sides of the femme fatale – one which is feared and must be contained, or one which is celebrated for its empowerment of women.
You can view the Judith and Holofernes (Jessica E. Smith and Kevin R. Brine Charitable Trust) collection in the Digital Library: http://library.artstor.org/library/collection/judith.
For more detailed information about this collection, visit the Judith and Holofernes (Jessica E. Smith and Kevin R. Brine Charitable Trust) collection page.