Once Nebuchadnezzar the mighty king of Babylon sent his general Holofernes with a powerful army against the rebellious provinces in the west with the order to punish them for their disobedience. Holofernes had already devastated large parts of Asia Minor and Syria when he reached Palestine. There the Israelites in the small mountain town Bethulia made a desperate resistance.
But as the situation of the besieged turned worse, they decided to surrender the fortress after some more days. A resolute opponent of this plan was the young widow Judith, who was well known because of her beauty and her piety.
After Judith had prayed long, she dressed and adorned herself, and went accompanied by her maid to the camp of the besiegers. Here because of her beauty and her eloquence she attracted the attention of Holofernes. Finally he gave a great feast to her honor, during which he became drunk. Because he wanted to spent the night alone with her, she murdered him with his own sword. Then she returned with his head as a trophy to the besieged town. Deprived of their commander the Babylonians fled and the whole encampment fell into the hands of the Israelites.
In art Judith is one of the great icons to symbolize the savior of his own people. When all seems lost, she remains strong in her faith in God and thus has the power to kill the enemy of her people.
She went to the bedpost near Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said "Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!" Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes' head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.
Judith's Return to Bethulia (1472-1473)
This Early Renaissance painting is by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510). It shows aleready many symbols which became significant for modern Judith-paintings. There is the maid, carrying the head of Holofernes in the basket, and there is the sword carried by Judith herself, because she did the bloody work with her own hands (in contrast to Salome).
The clothing and the landscape are pure Italian 15th century. There is absolutely no historical intention. The story of Judith could happen in any place at any time.
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