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Not only a tale of the Israelites’ heroism against their oppressors, the biblical Book of Judith also contains one of the most beloved subjects in art history: the titular heroine choreographically decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes.

As the ancient story relates, Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar sent his general Holofernes to besiege the Jewish city of Bethulia. Judith, described as a beautiful young widow, resolves to save her people by slaying Holofernes herself. After reciting a long prayer to God, she dons her finest clothes in order to seduce him. After Holofernes has drank enough wine to become intoxicated, Judith decapitates him with his own sword, winning a decisive victory for the Israelites.

From Angelica Frey, "How Judith Beheading Holofernes Became Art History’s Favorite Icon of Female Rage" (


Mantegna or follower (Possibly Giulio Campagnola), Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1495/1500



Botticelli, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1497-1500



Giorgione, Judith with Holofernes' Head, 1504



Donatello, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1453-64




During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church turned its focus to increasingly eye-grabbing and realistic depictions of Biblical scenes in a bold campaign to reassert itself in the face of Protestantism. The image of Judith had a key place in this artistic propaganda campaign.


While Martin Luther doubted the Book of Judith’s place in the cannon, the Catholic Church seized upon it. Judith’s killing of Holofernes could easily stand as a symbol of the avenging true church striking back against foes who had wronged it. In the Book of Judith, the lines that proceed this scene doubled as a Counter-Reformation battle cry: “Standing beside the bed, Judith murmured to herself: Lord God, to whom all strength belongs, prosper what my hands are now to do for the greater glory of Jerusalem; now is the time to recover your heritage and to further my plans to crush the enemies arrayed against us.”

In the context of Italy, the protection of “heritage” came against both Protestants and the Ottoman Turks, an active presence in the Venetian State. “It must be noted that Judith’s timeliness was enhanced by the Assyrian nationality of Holofernes,” historian Elena Ciletti writes. “This assured his conflation with Islam (in the form of the encroaching Ottoman Turks), an updating of his traditional satanic characterization.”

From Katie White, "Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ Is a Touchstone of Feminist Art History. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Gory Masterpiece" (


Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1530



Lavinia Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ca. 1590-95



Tintoretto, Judith and Holofernes, ca. 1577



Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599



Artemesia Gentleschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes is not a painting easily forgotten. Today, the dramatic scene is among the most well-known images of the Baroque era and most art lovers are at least vaguely familiar with the painting’s autobiographical and feminist interpretations.

Gentileschi’s bloody scene was likely a commission for Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In it, we see Judith in a darkened bedroom, dramatically slashing the throat of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, who had invaded her home city of Bethulia. Much of the popular interpretation of the scene has centered on the life of the artist, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653), a remarkable woman in many regards. Daughter and student of the successful Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi, she would become the first woman member of Florentine Accademia del Disegno.

But, as is commonly known, her life was marked by terrible struggle as well. Judith Beheading Holofernes is often viewed as reflecting the artist’s rape by her mentor Antonio Tassi at the age of 17, and the grueling public trial that followed. There’s good reason for the interpretation: Artemisia used herself as the model for this particularly steely depiction of Judith, a figure often been said to embody female rage.

From Katie White, "Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ Is a Touchstone of Feminist Art History. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Gory Masterpiece" (


Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1612-13


In the aftermath of her trial, Gentileschi moved to Florence where she lived from 1614 to 1620. There, she met the astronomer, as both were members of the Accademia del Disegno and had acquaintance with Florence’s Grand Ducal Court. By that time, Galileo had discovered the concept of “parabolic trajectory,” and had proved it mathematically (though he would not publish his findings for decades).

In essence, this law of motion states that for a projectile to come to rest from a state of motion, energy must be dissipated by resistance over time, thus making it describe a parabolic arc in space. This was a new idea, and one Galileo explained graphically via drawing out the different paths that cannonballs would make as they rained down to earth—describing the same pattern that gives such a vivid quality to the blood erupting from Holofernes’s neck in Gentileschi’s indelible painting.

From Katie White, "Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ Is a Touchstone of Feminist Art History. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Gory Masterpiece" (


Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, ca. 1620



Artemesia Gentileschi, Detail from Judith Beheading Holofernes, ca. 1620



Galileo Galilei, Illustration of parabolic projectile motion


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