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The Sword of Judith

Kevin R. Brine
Elena Ciletti
Henrike Lähnemann


3. Judith in the Christian Tradition

Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann

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  • 1 Citations in this introduction are mainly limited to representative references to our specific the (...)
  • 2 Among the important areas not considered here are the multiple traditions of Eastern Orthodox Chri (...)

1This essay sets out the broad framework of Christian tradition that unites, explicitly and implicitly, many of the papers in this volume, particularly in chapters 8–21.1 It begins with the foundations established by the early Roman Church and explores aspects of later heritage in Western Europe. It seems to us that the Christian roots of the Judith mythos have been inadequately acknowledged, with the result that the long trajectory of their influence has been undervalued. We have therefore construed our project as a kind of cultural archaeology, devoted to excavating some key theological currents and undercurrents of the construction of the figure of Judith in Western European thinking. We recognize that many significant branches of this cultural evolution are not addressed, owing to the geographic parameters set by the papers and the delimited nature of our inquiry.2

2Our schema is generally chronological, extending from the patristic through the early modern periods. Beginning with Jerome, we proceed through the medieval era, mapping first some of the early literary developments and then turning to the parallel visual imagery that later came to virtually dictate the popular perception of Judith. The discussion of the early modern centuries reverses this course: it is anchored primarily in the visual arts, alongside which related literary developments are sketched. From the sixteenth century on, the scenario is enriched by music and drama, which navigated between the textual, the visual and the aural. In tracing our themes, we can invoke only a few of the countless testimonials to the immense interest in Judith across more than a millennium. By the nineteenth century, secular concerns predominated. The features that we address favor the external or public facets of the works in question and their relationships to foundational Christian texts and concepts.

3Our material constitutes a segment of the reception history of Judith. For the purposes of this introduction we are privileging the cultural production aspect of this history over that of cultural consumption, an important topic that is addressed in several of the papers themselves. It must be stressed that for a figure as multivalent as Judith, malleability in signification is the norm, with varying and sometimes even opposing constitutive roles played by creators and audiences, especially as popular arts and drama came to transport the topic into ever more widely accessible arenas. We cannot fail to note that the history of the particular forms this process takes is inseparable from the paradoxes inherent in the character presented by the biblical story. Humble and bold, pious and devious, widow and warrior, Judith is ever composed of contradictions barely contained in tense equilibrium.

4Any introduction to the Christian tradition must start with the same facts (and problems) stated by Deborah Levine Gera (Chap. 2) for the Jewish tradition. For the Book of Judith, Christian sources and representations precede most Jewish textual evidence we have. Thus the initial papers in this volume deal with patristic and early medieval texts which are antecedent to those considered in all but the first essay of the Jewish section, while the Yiddish examples discussed are dependent on Protestant translations of the Book of Judith.

5As Gera points out, Jerome’s version of the Book of Judith in the Vulgate proved the most influential single source not only for the Christian textual tradition but also for the visual and musical representations in its wake. For this reason, we will begin with the distillation of his thinking about her book and her importance as stated in his preface, which was appended to the biblical text in manuscript and print for most of its history.

Praefatio Hieronymi in Librum Judith (Jerome’s Preface to the Book of Judith)3

  • 3 Patrologia Latina (PL 29, Col. 37–39). The translation here is Lähnemann’s, based on that by Andre (...)

6Apud Hebraeos liber Judith inter apocrypha legitur: cujus auctoritas ad roboranda illa quae in contentionem veniunt, minus idonea judicatur. Chaldaeo tamen sermone conscriptus, inter historias computatur. Sed quia hunc librum Synodus Nicaena in numero sanctarum Scripturarum legitur computasse, acquievi postulationi vestrae, immo exactioni: et sepositis occupationibus, quibus vehementer arctabar, huic unam lucubratiunculam dedi, magis sensum e sensu, quam ex verbo verbum transferens.

7Multorum codicum varietatem vitiosissimam amputavi: sola ea, quae intelligentia integra in verbis Chaldaeis invenire potui, Latinis expressi.

8Accipite Judith viduam, castitatis exemplum, et triumphali laude, perpetuis eam praeconiis declarate.

9Hanc enim non solum feminis, sed et viris imitabilem dedit, qui castitatis ejus remunerator, virtutem ei talem tribuit, ut invictum omnibus hominibus vinceret, et insuperabilem superaret.

10Among the Hebrew speaking Jews, the Book of Judith is counted as belonging to the apocryphal texts; its warrant for affirming disputed texts is deemed less than sufficient. Although it was written in Aramaic, it is taken to be a moral story/among the historical books. But since this book was counted by the Nicene Council as belonging to the sacred texts, I have acquiesced to your appeal (or should I say demand!): and, my other work set aside, from which I was forcibly restrained, I have given a single night’s work, translating rather sense by sense than word for word.

11I have hacked away at the excessively error-ridden panoply of the many codices; I conveyed in Latin only what I could find expressed coherently in the Chaldean words.

12Receive the widow Judith, a paradigm of chastity, and with triumphant laud make her known in perpetual praises.

13For not only for women, but also for men, she has been given as a model by the one who rewards her chastity, who has ascribed to her such virtue that she conquered the unconquered among all men, and surmounted the insurmountable.

14In this document Jerome makes three statements that set the framework for the greater part of the reception history.

  • 4 The status conceded by Jerome to the Book of Judith is taken up in the later notion of ”deuterocan (...)

15Among the Jews, the Book of Judith is considered apocryphal. The Book of Judith is perched rather precariously on the edge of Scripture. The twilight state of its canonicity is expressed by the three conflicting categories in which it has historically been placed: ”apocrypha” (non-canonical, apocryphal books), ”historiae” (historical accounts but also stories for moral instruction, including fictitious works), and ”sanctae scripturae” (canonical books as part of the Holy Scripture).4 This indeterminacy proved irritating; most of the medieval manuscripts replace the ”apocrypha” classification with ”hagiographa” (”holy writing,” used as a technical term for the third canonical part of the Hebrew Bible) to set the book on the firm ground of canonicity. But Jerome’s anecdotal account of his translation process reenforces the first impression: he says that, as Gera notes (Chap. 2), it was done as a mere ”lucubratiuncula” (a night shift set aside for leisurely literary pursuit) and that he employed not the verbatim style, i.e., what befits a canonical book, but a rather more rough and ready mode (”sensus a sensu”). It does not matter that the evidence of Jerome’s translation technique belies this claim. What is important is the ambiguous positioning thus achieved for the Book of Judith between the sacrosanct and the fictional, which opened up a freedom of rendering beyond the strictures demanded by canonical texts.

16Receive the widow Judith, a paradigm of chastity. In the shorter second part of the preface, Jerome suddenly shifts the focus away from issues of canonicity and translation to the figure of the protagonist herself, the ”widow Judith,” whose victory raises her to the pinnacle of moral exemplarity. He thereby passes over the greater part of the scriptural narrative, which Judith enters only at mid point, in favor of its culmination, her defeat of the invincible Holofernes. This contraction is in concordance with Jerome’s own rendering of the overall story-line in the Vulgate, which is a third shorter than the earlier Septuagint version. The foregrounding in the preface of Judith’s climactic feat at the expense of a wider-angled view of the intricacies of the tale and of her multifaceted character would have a long history of repercussions, especially in the visual arts. Jerome’s moralizing effects a further condensation: bringing the book in line with hagiography, Judith is branded as ”mulier sancta” (holy woman; Jdt 8:29), one who is defined by a single virtue, chastity, of which she is made a moral example, for men and women alike. He is highlighting here the well-known emphasis on this virtue that differentiates his Book of Judith text itself from that of the Septuagint; it is the Vulgate that stresses the commitment to chastity of Judith’s domestic seclusion in Bethulia and her steadfast refusal to remarry. This concentration allows later theological writers to use Judith in similarly reductive ways, as a personification of particular virtues, following their inclinations and the moral fashion of the day.

17With triumphant laud make her known in perpetual praise. Judith’s story is presented not only as a model but as a source of exultation and exaltation. Jerome’s mandates proved to be an incentive for the retelling in different media and genres.

  • 5 See The Parallel Apocrypha. Greek text, King James Version, Douay Old Testament, the Holy Bible by (...)
  • 6 The unparalleled popularity of Judith during the Reformation is a main theme of Margarita Stocker, (...)

18These tropes, which were well developed in patristic scholarship beyond Jerome, became the heart of Judith’s symbolic identities in the Christian tradition: as virtue personified, as type of the Church, and, last but not least, as prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. She was thereby inscribed within an immense network of emblematic associations, most of which served to neutralize the negative dimensions of her tactics: dissimulation, the shrewd exploitation of her adversary’s sexual presumptions, and violence. In this way Judith’s transgression of cultural norms, especially for women, was transmuted into its opposite. Along with her sister heroines of the Old Testament, the chaste widow Judith became a familiar component of typological and allegorical constructions in art and literature in the mid to late Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance as well. In the sixteenth century, this aspect of her identity assumed new cogency with the polemical revival of Marian typology by the Roman Catholic Church in response to the challenges of the Reformation. Jerome himself was a factor here, contested in his double roles as a founder of Mariology and the author of the Vulgate. The historical quarrels about the Book of Judith’s canonicity, already ancient in Jerome’s time and alluded to in his preface, were reanimated: for Catholics, Jerome’s explanation bolstered their ancient, pre-Vulgate practice of including the Apocrypha in the canon, while for most Protestants it justified the contrary position.5 In the Luther Bible and the King James, the Apocrypha were placed as a separate text group after the Old Testament; in the reformed tradition they were eventually excluded. It was in this period of sectarian division that the salience of Judith reached its apogee, as seen in an unprecedented proliferation of representations.6 Much the same might be said of Jerome.

19Essential to this phenomenon is the creation by Protestants of their own Judith practices, with Luther’s recommendation of the Book of Judith as ”good tragedy” proving as influential as Jerome’s preface. The Luther Bible ironically added to the supremacy of Jerome’s redaction since the apocryphal books were added hastily to satisfy the demand for a traditional ”full Bible,” and an anonymous helper translated the Book of Judith straight from the Vulgate – the only one in the Luther Bible not to go back to a Hebrewor Greek text. Thus the translation history of the marginalized book seems to repeat itself. This also gave authors the liberty to draw on it without restrictions, as seen in Reformation dramas like Joachim Greff’s ”Tragoedia Judith” (1536), which quotes verbatim from Luther. The flourishing trade in dramatizations of Judith furnished arguments for both sides of the denominational divide across Europe, well into the seventeenth century.

  • 7 Judith of Bavaria (ca. 800–843) was, by virtue of her marriage to Louis I (the Pious) of France in (...)

20The reception history of the Christian Judith has long been molded by the obvious fact that the virtues she is made to manifest throughout her saga are not limited to chastity and its analogues, humility, temperance and piety. As a type of both Mary and the Church, her core identity as instrument of divine will and savior of her people expanded to encompass victory over the devil and sin itself. She came to be associated with Fortitude and Justice, for instance, and to personify such traits as Wisdom, Magnanimity and Eloquence. As the victorious defender of her people, she was inevitably marshaled in struggles against tyrants and enemies, especially foreign ”heathens,” and indeed in a wide variety of political and civic arenas, as well as in the discourse of gender manifested in such phenomena as the ”Querelle des Femmes.” It is clear that her story offered a rich panoply of religious and secular applications. From at least the ninth century, when Hrabanus Maurus dedicated his commentary to her namesake, Queen Judith, they are fused.7 Our papers chart these dynamics, individually and intermingled, in multiple genres.

  • 8 This begins with Edna Purdie, The Story of Judith in German and English Literature (Paris: Librair (...)

21The cultural visibility of later iconic renderings – among them sculptures of a harnessed heroine, paintings of a naked or tarted-up seductress, dramas of spectacular bloodshed and musical presentations of a love story gone tragically wrong – has influenced the twentieth-century scholarly discussion of the Judith topic. In the scholarship on literature, for instance, it would seem that the expectation of gore and sex had rendered the early traditions that read Judith as pudicitia or the Virgin Mary disappointingly tame and therefore of relatively little interest. While there are numerous literary surveys from early modern to modern times, the patristic and medieval traditions mostly form only a brief prequel in theory-informed studies.8 Also, for a long time there was a tendency in theological research to neglect books that seemed to thwart critical probing, as Judith’s does. There is, for example, nothing new that can be learned about the early geography of Israel from analyzing the references in Achior’s and Judith’s speeches devoted to Israelite history in the Septuagint, and no earlier Hebrew text has emerged. Only recently has it been acknowledged that the openly fictitious character of the book’s setting actually furnishes illuminating insights into the contemporary Jewish Hellenistic society, as Schmitz and Gera in this volume demonstrate (Chaps. 4 and 5).

  • 9 The ”Vetus Latina,” which was based on the Septuagint (and which Jerome used to borrow certain phr (...)
  • 10 An important literary reliance upon the Septuagint in the early modern period is the epic French p (...)

22There yet remains a lot to be discovered in terms of how the patristic tradition shaped medieval renderings of the story and how these retellings and their molding of the figure of Judith influenced (early) modern perceptions of her and her book. All of our volume’s papers that place her within a wider Christian tradition deal with consequences of Jerome’s premises, both formal and interpretive.9 As indicated, the Luther Bible and most other translations derived from it kept to the foreshortened account of the Vulgate, as did all the Catholic Scriptures. With the notable exception of the King James Bible, whose Judith came from the Septuagint, it was only with the Bible revisions of the nineteenth century that the Greek version was available in new vernacular translations. Outside a scholarly context, the Book of Judith generally meant, well into modernity, the account of the Vulgate, and with it the figure of the mulier sancta of Jerome’s making.10

Patristics and Their Medieval Afterlife

  • 11 The following section is partly based on Henrike Lähnemann’s, ”Hystoria Judith”: Deutsche Judithdi (...)

23The patristic literature informs the medieval presentations of the Book of Judith twofold.11 On the one hand it frames the figure of Judith in certain defined contexts; a significant example is the casting of Judith as pudicitia in the late-fourth-century Psychomachia of Prudentius (cf. Mastrangelo, Chap. 8). Together with Jerome’s definition of the Judith as castitas, this set the precedent for further personifications. Most prominent is humilitas, as in the earliest (ca. 1140) manuscript of the Speculum Virginum, with its unusual image of ”Humilitas vanquishing Superbia,” which derives from illustrations of Prudentius (cf. Bailey, Chap. 15). On the other hand, early Christian practice developed the model of Bible epics as a mode of presenting narrative units from the Old and New Testament. No late antique Judith epic exists, but the conceptual paradigms established by the likes of Prudentius (cf. Bailey, Chap. 15) and Juvencus proved a hugely influential literary model.

24Bible epics became the prevalent literary mode in which to present the Vulgate story of Judith in the Middle Ages. This form, not exactly a defined genre, stands at the crossing point of theological and literary discourses. Time and again, the attempt was undertaken to transfer biblical material and theological knowledge into the vernacular. We can watch each generation going back to the Scripture and meeting the challenges it presents from a current point of view. This means that there was no tradition formed in its own right in the literary realm but that every text confronted the biblical material afresh.

  • 12 This came to be fundamentally challenged in the sixteenth century by Lutheranpolemics against ”con (...)

25The Vulgate Bible remained the primary text as such. Its authority was, perhaps paradoxically, strengthened by virtue of its availability to the medieval recipient only in Latin, hence translated, form. Since it retained the prefaces of Jerome, the Vulgate constantly reminded the reader of the process of translation and of the status of the biblical text as not only a testimony of divine inspiration but also of ecclesiastical approval. Jerome became translation personified and the whole chain of transmission was sanctified. Derivation, amplification, and further intermediaries did not weaken the text but added further authorizations to it. For medieval audiences, this was a furthering of the assertion of 1 Thes 2:16; they ”received it not as the word of men, but (as it is indeed) the word of God.” The translation did not dilute the divine message but rather fortified, justified and praised it.12

26During the medieval period, in addition to the recurring referencing back to Jerome’s version of the Judith story seen in the literary form of the Bible epics, there were also theological commentaries and diverse attempts to make the story-line more coherent by sorting out the confusing chronological order. The first commentary to encompass the full Book of Judith was that of Hrabanus Maurus in the 830s. After that, his only medieval successor was Nicholas of Lyra, who took up the challenge again when he produced a full set of commentaries for his ”Postilla litteralis super Biblia” at the beginning of the fourteenth century. This meant that when in the twelfth century the ”Glossa ordinaria” was formed, all interlinear glosses and marginal comments were taken from the commentary of Hrabanus. Its dedication to the Empress Judith explains the motivation for the exception to the rule of not writing single commentaries on borderline books like Judith. When he wrote ”Accipite ergo Judith homonymam vestram, castitatis exemplar, et triumphali laude perpetuis eam praeconiis declarate” (Receive therefore Judith, your namesake, a paradigm of chastity, and with triumphant laud make her known in perpetual praises), Hrabanus declared not only the praise of Judith, the model, and Judith, the Empress (who surpasses her), but also of Jerome whose phrasing he borrowed. This cemented the adaptability of Judith as personification, and he then concentrated on an ecclesiological reading of Judith as prefiguration of the Church. Hrabanus was influential as well in what he did not comment upon. Missing are the status of Judith as a widow, for example, and the characterization of her actions as viriliter (manly; Jdt 15:11). The decision to appear seductive through self-adornment – precisely the fact that became so crucial in the Renaissance – was explained away by giving only ecclesiastical interpretations of the jewelry.

27Via the ”Glossa ordinaria,” which remained the standard reference work into the (Catholic) seventeenth century, the allegorical explanations of the Book of Judith from the ninth century, marked as mystice, were transported right into modern times. They were combined with a wide range of explanatory remarks taken from patristic authors: Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Clement of Rome, Eusebius of Caesarea, Junilius, and Origen appear in the compilations of the sixteenth century, together with the historical explanations from Nicholas of Lyra, from the ”Antiquitates” of Josephus and, mainly, from Peter Comestor’s ”Historia Scholastica.”

  • 13 James H. Morey, ”Peter Comestor, Biblical Paraphrase, and the Medieval Popular Bible,” in Speculum(...)

28The huge compilation by Comestor is the most prominent instance of another form through which theological learning influenced vernacular retellings and pictorial representations: chronological accounts of world history.13 The crucial difficulty is, of course, that the Book of Judith is unhistorical. If it is to be integrated in a continuous narrative, it has to be rewritten rather heavily. Peter Comestor located the story in the times of Cambyses by declaring that this Persian ruler (sixth century b.c.e.) was seen by the Israelites as a ”new Nebuchadnezzar” since he was as great a threat to their freedom as the latter had been. What does not fit in with this time frame was cut out and replaced with details from secular antique historiography; the rearranged story runs to only a quarter of the length of the Vulgate version. Comestor’s Judith is characterized in one sentence only: ”vidua tribus annis, mulier pulchra nimis, sed casta, de tribu Ruben” (a widow of three years’ standing, an exceedingly beautiful but chaste woman, of the tribe of Ruben). Only the adversative sed indicates that there might be dramatic potential behind this figure on the margins of history. Comestor’s basic story-line was too short to form the only source for medieval literary versions but it provided the means of integrating the Book of Judith in other large compilations which followed, like sets of mystery plays on the Old Testament in France. It also provided the basis for most of the vernacular retellings of the Bible which proved much more influential than straight translations.

  • 14 Cf. Fig. 4.1 which illustrates the mistranslation of conopeum as ”cushion” (German: küssy) in one (...)
  • 15 There are four distinct translations of the Vulgate into German in the course of the fourteenth ce (...)
  • 16 For example, the Vier Historien (four stories), the second oldest vernacular book to be printed (A (...)

29To take the example of Germany: the ”Historienbibel,” a translation of Peter Comestor’s compilation, appeared in the fourteenth century, before the full Bible was translated into the vernacular. While other books of the Bible had been translated much earlier, the group undertaking a complete translation only got as far as Judith in the late fourteenth century, in part because of the difficulties posed by the Vulgate’s awkward, Hebraizing prose.14 The Book of Judith itself came fully into play only in the fifteenth century, when multivolume sets of biblical books were made affordable for private owners by the new form of manufactory-style book production, i.e., paper copies with pen-and-wash drawings. Most of the surviving sets of manuscripts of the full German Bible were for affluent owners with limited Latin; their illuminations furnish us with a contemporary understanding of the story (cf. the cover illustration). In the late medieval workshops, vernacular Bibles were produced alongside secular narratives and other stories of popular culture. This inclusion of the vernacular Book of Judith and shorter retellings of the Judith story among the mainstream narratives continued unchanged through early print runs. Meanwhile, all pre-Lutheran vernacular printed Bibles reproduced the same translation of the fourteenth century with a small stock of topical woodcuts that cemented the iconography and made it recognizable.15 The story of Judith was thus clearly conceived as part of the wider Bible narrative as it was presented in the vernacular, making the heroine a stock figure of popular storytelling.16

30In German Bible epics, Hrabanus’s commentary influenced the two Early Middle High German versions of Judith, the so-called ”Older” and ”Younger” Judith, both part of the Vorau manuscript of the twelfth century that combined vernacular retellings of Bible stories in a sweep through salvation history from Genesis to the Last Judgment. The Judith of 1254 took in explanations of names from the ”Glossa ordinaria” to make the story understandable for a new audience, the Teutonic knights. At the same time, Judith as antetype of Mary increasingly appeared in shorter forms like Marian hymns or verse poetry, as it did in Dante’s Paradiso. In France, a notable early literary appearance came in the beginning of the fifteenth century, in the brief narration of her story in the Mystères de la procession de Lille (cf. Nassichuk, Chap. 10). The vast reservoir of late medieval German verse writing, for example by the Meistersingers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (cf. Lähnemann, Chap. 13), gave a wealth of different, even contradictory assessments of Judith, who started to emerge as a figure in her own right.

  • 17 This came via the Hellenistic generic term in the Septuagint for the post of handmaiden, preserved (...)

31By biblical translations of the late fourteenth century, we find similar impulses beginning to stir on behalf of the story’s subsidiary characters, chief of whom is Judith’s maid. She is a pivotal figure in the plot: she accompanies Judith to Holofernes’s camp, guards the entrance to his tent on the fateful night, and bears the provisions and the frightful trophy head. Previously anonymous, she came to acquire a name, Abra, from the Latin references to Judith ”et abra sua” (and her maid; Jdt 8:32 etc.) in the Vulgate.17 This then became her designation in translations up to and including that of the Luther Bible and in early modern drama and literature.

32In a third major type of medieval source books, the allegorical collections of the ”Biblia Pauperum” and the ”Speculum Humanae Salvationis,” only two scenes from the Book of Judith made a lasting impact: the binding of Achior as a prefiguration of Christ’s flagellation and the beheading of Holofernes as one of the antetypes of Mary’s suppression of the devil. The captions of the Judith scenes in the Hortus Deliciarum (commissioned 1188–1191 by Herrad of Landsberg) interpret the decapitation as Christ’s human nature conquering the devil (cf. Schmitz, Chap. 4).

  • 18 One important literary example extends beyond the geographical borders of this volume, namely Judi (...)

33To sum up: The medieval Judith was the holy woman and chaste widow of the Vulgate version, fashioned as personified virtue by Jerome and the theological authorities, and perceived as a (minor) part of world history as presented by Peter Comestor. While there were some theological qualms about the canonicity of the Book of Judith and therefore about the status of its heroine, the popular perception fed by vernacular retellings and visual representations took the book and the woman simply as part of the Bible. Beyond that, each country had some additional sources of influence and a local literary and iconographic tradition that fashioned different facets of the story and the woman. The contemporary environment was often a factor. A prime early example is that of Anglo-Saxon England, where literary treatments of Judith around the year 1000 derived new urgency from the Viking raids of the time. The conclusion that ”Judith needs to be thought of within the context of both the patristic background and the contemporary calamity” (cf. Cooper, Chap. 9) holds true for many subsequent cases.18

  • 19 A recent general source is Jeffrey Spier et al., Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, (...)
  • 20 Letter 53, ca. 394 c.e. Ciletti thanks Catherine Conybeare for her illuminating discussion on Paul (...)

34Visual corollaries of this literary history can be located already in the patristic era, indeed in the shadow of Jerome. The first recorded example of Judith imagery is a (no longer extant) fresco of ca. 404, located in a most prestigious ecclesiastical setting: the new basilica complex erected by Paulinus at Nola, south of Naples.19 The extensive fresco cycles there were an important contribution to the emerging exegetical praxis of demonstrating the unification of the Old and New Testaments. Their patron was the same Paulinus to whom Jerome wrote his famous letter summarizing the books of the Bible, in which he emphasized the linkages between the Jewish and Christian texts.20 The former was represented, in the portico at Nola, by two virtuous pairs: Tobias and Job, Judith and Esther. The nature of these depictions is not known, except that they had identifying inscriptions. We are better informed about the didactic intent of Paulinus, whose own description of his paintings at the site survives: to inspire pilgrims to prayer, to the renunciation of carnal pleasures, and to the spiritual emulation of his painted exemplars. It cannot be overstressed that his Judith is not a solo character or an independent entity. Rather, her significance resides in her selection for participation in a larger theological scheme, typological and moral. The pattern thus established would hold in Roman Catholic church decoration and discourse for well over a thousand years.

  • 21 See, for example, Per Nordhagen, The Frescoes of John VII (A.D. 705–707) in S. Maria Antiqua in Ro (...)
  • 22 Eva Tea, La Basilica di Santa Maria Antiqua (Milan: Società Editrice ”Vita e Pensiero,” 1937), p. (...)

35From Nola in the fifth century, the art historical record then skips three hundred years, to the fresco in Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum of ca. 705–07.21 Although only fragments remain, its discernible components seem to constitute a narrative episode: there is the Assyrian camp with soldiers and the tent of Holofernes, the richly dressed Judith, with his head, and the walls of Bethulia crowded with spectators. As at Nola, she joins a large assembly of other Old Testament figures; in this case the typological allegorizing is clearly in the service of Mary/Ecclesia.22 As seen in our first two painting examples, the institutional Christian roots of the visual cults of Judith are identical to those of the textual tradition.

  • 23 Frances Gray Godwin, ”The Judith Illustration of the ’Hortus Deliciarum’,” in Gazette des beaux-ar (...)

36The point is even clearer in the next chronological stage: beginning in at least the ninth century, it is in Bibles that most Judith representations were located.23 A formal or narrative consideration emerged as well. The biblical illuminations of the Book of Judith were dominated by a single vignette of the beheading of Holofernes, which often opens the text, set within the conveniently tent-shaped A for Artaxerxes, the first word. Further scenes were rarely added until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when richly illuminated vernacular Bibles became more common (cf. our cover illustration), an exception being the Winchester Bible from the twelfth century. A wider range of episodes occurs in the context of cycles in illustrated treatises such as the ”Speculum Humanae Salvationis,” the ”Speculum Virginum,” the Hortus Deliciarum, discussed above (cf. Schmitz, Chap. 4, Fig. 4.2). The subsequent emergence of Judith in Gothic sculpture and glass – with the dense cluster of symbolic associations already noted – is therefore not surprising. Two prime examples from thirteenth-century France are to be found at Chartres and in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. In the portal of the north transept of Chartres Cathedral, Judith stands opposite the Queen of Sheba in an arrangement of Old Testament figures supporting the church. In the Sainte-Chapelle, the Judith cycle is part of an extensive program of Bible windows. But a full cycle like this, with episodes from the military history of the first chapters, is rather the exception to the rule of her imageryin the Middle Ages, which generally concentrated on the crucial moment of beheading, variously interpreted and configured. It is clear that already in this period, the shaping of Judith’s story and its attendant moralizing were determined not only by the context of bibles, Marian churches and other works in question but also by the audience being addressed, ranging from nuns to royal courts and other secular groups.

Early Modern Period

  • 24 These individual works of art and the iconographic history they constitute have generated an immen (...)

37The best-known visual representations of Judith are those of the early modern period, dominated by now legendary conceptions of major figures.24 Among the Italians, the list would not fail to contain Donatello, Mantegna, Giorgione, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and both Gentileschis, while north of the Alps, we would find Baldung, Cranach, and Rubens, among others. Innovations abound, instigated by humanism and transformations in political, social and cultural arenas. Even before the impact of the Reformation brought new energy to the discourse, artists began the energetic investigations of Judith’s inherently paradoxical qualities, which account for the sometimes bewildering range of interpretative positions on display. It is well known that by the late fifteenth century, two of the traits with which she defeated Holofernes, her beauty and her deceit, began to assume new carnality and sensuality.

  • 25 The general Marian cast of the typological scheme of the Sistine Ceiling, articulated by Esther Go (...)

38Although the point is not often stressed, the adventurous new trends coexisted with the medieval associations with Mary. The most authoritative example of iconographic innovation in the service of Marian tradition is Michelangelo’s pendentive in the Sistine Chapel ceiling (ca. 1509), 25but it is not alone. Wherever typological programs continued to flourish, the holy widow of Bethulia could be found among the Old Testament company, both in major Marian shrines such as Siena Cathedral (mosaic pavement panel, 1470s) and more modest sites like Santa Maria della Pace in Rome (fresco by Peruzzi, 1516). The new points of view about depicting Judith were thus added to the already complex base of earlier Christian thinking.

39The mix of continuity and change can also be seen in the treatment by early modern artists of the climactic decapitation of Holofernes and its aftermath. The medieval preference for the scene in the tent prevailed and was given even more prominence, among both Protestants and Catholics, while the potential for psychological resonance was expanded by an everenlarging repertory of narrative possibilities, from Donatello on. It was, of course, Caravaggio who famously jolted the convention into terrifying new life by portraying the beheading in progress, with Holofernes awakening from his inebriation into screaming consciousness.

  • 26 For a full list cf. Adelheid Straten, Das Judith-Thema in Deutschland im 16. Jahr-hundert. Studien (...)
  • 27 Ciletti thanks Christine Rolland for informing her about this and other French Judithic sites and (...)

40Renaissance and Baroque art also took up a few other episodes, sometimes as a sequence of events encompassing the to-and-fro between Bethulia and Holofernes’s camp, and even, occasionally, the banquet in his tent (as part of a multiscene painting by Cranach, for example) or the final battle (sixteenth-century large-scale woodcuts from Germany).26 The discursive approach lived on most notably in Netherlandish print and tapestry cycles, in the occasional painting series and in printed Bibles and biblical compilations, such as the illustrated ”Bibles historiques,” as well as in secular interior decorations. An interesting example of the latter, unaccountably ignored in the Judith literature, is the early seventeenth-century painting cycle at the chateau of Ancy-le-Franc in Burgundy, by Nicolas de Hoey.27

41Most familiar are the iconic depictions, often devoid of narrative setting, of Judith with the sword and the head of Holofernes. They are found in virtually all media, products of every national tradition, not only in painting, sculpture, and prints, but also domestic artifacts, such as needlework, ceramics, and other tableware. There are many other manifestations. Their contexts and expressive contents range across categories: sacred and profane, private and public, erotic and patriotic. Judith with her sword naturally figured Justice, but her symbolic applications extended far beyond this one virtue.

42One of the paramount contexts for Renaissance iconography, the revival of classical antiquity and the culture of humanism, yielded predictably rich results for Judith, among them the expansion of figural sources and their formal vocabulary. Much still remains to be probed in this domain (for example, how the costuming of Judith could imbue her with the spirit of antiquevirtù). Garbed in clothing and ornaments suffused with references to Athena and the Amazons rather than in the nondescript cloaks of medieval personifications, the Judiths of Italian artists from Donatello to Artemisia Gentileschi are literally enveloped in the authoritative mantle of classical female heroism (cf. Apostolos-Cappadona, Chap. 18). In this way, the taint of sinful seductive purpose in the sumptuous garments she dons for her expedition to Holofernes’s camp, which Jerome characterized in the Vulgate as God’s express wish and which was nervously glossed over by the theological authors, was vitiated. The medieval tradition of pairing Judith conceptually with powerful classical women, such as Queen Tomyris, was thus visually updated by early modern artists in both explicit and allusive ways.

43Donatello’s bronze group of the late 1450s occupies a precocious position in the development of related aspects of humanist influence on Judithic iconography. It established precedents for the encompassing of allegorical abstraction in psychologically nuanced characterization and with it the elaboration of the potential for political appropriation. His sculpture has been much studied in both categories, with the civic dimensions generally paramount, thanks to its original ownership by the Medici, upon whose exile it was co-opted by the Florentine Republic in 1495. The modalities of Judith’s republican symbolism were modeled by classical and medieval authors who influenced the Tuscan discourse, as well as contemporary sermons by Savonarola (cf. Blake McHam, Chap. 17). Central to this topic is Judith’s long history as a justification for tyrannicide, a topic which would soon explode into violent polemics in the wars of religion, especially after high-profile political assassinations in France, beginning in the 1560s and including the regicides of Henri III and IV (1589, 1610) (cf. Cummings, Chap. 12). In each case, the assassin, whether Protestant or Catholic, was hailed by his proponents as a new Judith.

44Florentine civic interests can be seen to resonate not only with Judith’s exploits in the Assyrian camp, so graphically explored by Donatello, but also with her redomestication after returning to Bethulia (cf. Crum, Chap. 16). While Judith, together with David, was a potent public figure, the majority of her imagery in Renaissance Florence consisted of sculptures, paintings, and furniture, such as cassoni (marriage chests) made for private settings (the interiors of patrician palaces). This is a salutary reminder that the mighty deed in the public realm of war which earned Judith the accolade ”manly” was also understood as an emphatically temporary inversion of the ”natural” social order. Again we meet the practice of (de)emphasizing segments of Judith’s saga in order to create the desired message or meaning for the intended audience. This adaptability to circumstances and to even conflicting purposes is one ramification of the inherent moral ambivalence of the figure of Judith, who could be and was shaped into whatever persona was required.

  • 28 Cf. Bettina Baumgärtel and Silvia Neysters, Die Galerie der starken Frauen: Die Heldin in der fran (...)

45The civic ramifications of the domestic exemplarity of the widow of Bethulia lead us to somewhat opposing categories of literary production of the early modern era, and they have ramifications in the visual realm: comportment literature, the ”Querelle des Femmes” and popular entertainment. Judith was a ”star” in all of them but for different reasons. The patristic tradition of celebrating Judith for her temperance, fasting, prudence, prayer, and, above all, chastity continued to be promoted in behavior manuals and sermons, especially in the sections addressed to widows. In this category it was her return to a reclusive life of ascetic piety and her spurning of suitors that were held up for approbation. Judith thus reinforced gender-based conventions, rooted in the presumed moral deficiencies of the female sex in general, to which she offered a corrective. But from at least Christine de Pizan’s ”Le Livre de la Cité des Dames” (early fifteenth century), her exemplarity was granted a more active role: she was included among the other women whose heroism and virtue entitled them to enlistment in the arguments against misogynist detractors in the ”Querelle.” Thus from the literary and visual ranks of the ”Nine Worthies,” where she and her old companions Jael and Esther represented Old Testament heroines, she joined the cast of virile ”femmes fortes,” whose popularity rose with the ascension of queens to the thrones of England and France in the late sixteenth century.28

46At the same time, Judith’s ”sisterhood” with biblical figures could be used to vilify her or at least to emphasize her equivocal morality, on grounds that are fundamentally sexual. We see this when she was paired, in literature and the visual arts, with Eve and Delilah. Holofernes thus joined Adam and Samson, male victims of female cunning. He and Judith joined the ”couples” that proved how men are deceived and enslaved by women. The development of this trope in German literature can be traced in the ways that erotic metaphorical language was used already in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to include Judith among the cunning women – one result being the emergence in Reformation drama of a new comic side to the story with a lovesick Holofernes and a camp of boisterous mercenaries (cf. Lähnemann, Chap. 13). Interest in Holofernes himself and the vicissitudes of his situation, amorous and otherwise, sometimes gained him the spotlight, as seen in such dramatic works as Giovanfrancesco Alberti’s Oloferne Tragedia (1594).

  • 29 Among the signposts in this discourse are the articles in American Imago by Graeme Taylor, ”Judith (...)
  • 30 For both painters, the twin poles of the psychoanalytic axis are the brutality of their treatments (...)

47It should be noted that neither this introduction nor the papers in this volume engage directly with the application to literary or artistic production of the Freudian correlation of decapitation to castration, which has dominated much of modern thinking and writing about Judith. The psychosexual issues have been thoroughly aired by cultural historians across the humanities’ disciplines, as well as by psychoanalysts themselves.29 Freud’s assertion of the sexuality of Judith, apropos of Hebbel’s play (cf. Mecky Zaragoza, Chap. 25) is well known, as is Sacher-Masoch’s voluptuous fantasy of identification with Holofernes and its afterlife in the paintings of Klimt and his contemporaries. For the early modern period the kind of psychoanalytic approach that attends to artists’ sexual biographies and their unconscious motivations has indelibly marked the recent literature, especially on Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi.30

48Rather than revisit this well-tended path, we wish instead to stress here the opportunity to enlarge the framing of Judith’s cogency offered by less-familiar images, notably those commissioned for Roman Catholic sites (cf. Ciletti, Chap. 19). Such works testify to the enduring relevance of the patristic framework to ecclesiastical sponsors of the visual arts to a degree that had not been understood heretofore. Identical Catholic imperatives can be seen in Judith’s treatment in the contemporary theater in Italy, where two of the most cited manifestations are the Jesuit school plays and the court drama of Federico della Valle (ca. 1590s; cf. Marsh, Chap. 21), which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. One must also note the stained glass windows of Northern European churches, such as those of Upper Normandy and the Netherlands, where the polemical context of the wars of religion applied. The consideration of this material is not antithetical to a psychologically inflected approach, as it helps us situate the varied concerns of both artists and patrons, offering in the process insights into the fertility of the persistent intersection of textual and visual interpretation.

  • 31 These extend back at least as far as the sixth-century Greek chronicle by John Malalas. See Elena (...)

49Of course there is no shortage of eroticism in the Book of Judith. It clearly troubled her patristic fashioners and their successors, for whom her Ecclesia/Mary analogies were vital. From Jerome on, the latent sexuality of the chaste widow who calculatedly enticed and exploited the lust of her adversary was suppressed by the Church and recast into its submerged opposite. But the enduring Christian belief in essential female wantonness, the inheritance of Eve, meant that suspicions about Judith’s sexual morality could not be obliterated.31 New opportunities for exploring this issue were offered in the visual arts by the humanist-influenced validation of nude representations, which could signal both ”manly” heroism and ”womanly” seductiveness, and every intermediate stage in between. Nudity, either partial or total, enhanced Judith’s transition from ”femme forte” to ”femme fatale.” It is in the latter guise that she is best known now, with key testimonials provided by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century prints and paintings by an international cast of artists, among them Beham, Cranach, Rubens, and Saraceni.

  • 32 See, e.g., Caroline Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologn (...)
  • 33 Querciolo Mazzonis, Spirituality, Gender and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the (...)
  • 34 Dialogo della institution delle donne (Venice: Ferrari, 1545, and many times there-after, in Itali (...)

50On the opposite side of this coin is one of the more interesting facets of Judith’s reception history, namely that in response to sermons and comportment treatises fostering her exemplarity, some early modern women actively identified with her. There is a wide range of such indications, especially in Italy and France. One is the rise of historiated portraits and even self-portraits, i.e., likenesses of actual women/artists in the guise of Judith, holding the head of Holofernes;32 literary parallels may be found in such cases as the poetry of Gabrielle de Coignard (cf. Llewellyn, Chap. 11). Another is the commissioning of literary, musical, and visual representations of Judith by women patrons, particularly widows, who aspired to association with her (cf. Harness, Chap. 20). It should be obvious that it is not in her beheading action per se that Judith offered a behavioral example for women, but in the strength of character which that action symbolized. A fascinating case of her deployment to support and challenge conventional female social roles simultaneously is that of Angela Merici, who founded the Ursuline nuns as a self-governing and independent community, living together on their own, not enclosed in convents. In the ”Regola” which constituted the order in 1535, Merisi charged her followers to guard their virtue and behave bravely, as Judith did when she beheaded Holofernes, and to anticipate a triumphant reception in heaven.33 A further development can be noted in seventeenth-century England, where the example of Judith provided Quaker women with validation for their desire to preach (cf. Bartholomew, Chap. 14). It would seem that the very malleability of Judith was available for women to appropriate, perhaps aided by the dictum of Lodovico Dolce in 1545 that Judith, the model widow, was a personification of the vita attiva and the vita contemplativa both.34

  • 35 Communication to the authors, August 31, 2009.

51The cultural history of Judith in this period reveals an intersection of diverse voices across many media. The ”Querelle des Femmes” was a popular genre that flourished in complex relationship to contemporary comportment literature, which was itself a subset of theological discourse. We have here the convergence and the opposition of differing and hotly contested conceptions of women and their duties. The prominence of ruling queens, female princes, overturned conventional definitions of the female sphere and ideals of feminine agency. Judith provided ammunition for both sides of this debate, on whatever terrain it played out. The Quaker women who used her to defend their right to preach, for instance, battled those who took exactly the opposite position. Factional warfare complicated the matter for queens and their apologists, as indeed for everyone. As William St. Clair observed, it would seem that ”the political and ecclesiastical commissioners of Judith presentations were themselves trying to navigate between competing discursive frameworks that they themselves sometimes wanted to preserve and sometimes to jettison.”35 Not surprisingly, the figurative results are marked by dissonance. The corpus of Judith’s representations, visual and literary, reveals tensions between irresolvable extremes.

52If the interpretive amplification of the Judith and Holofernes story is a feature of early modern culture, its protagonists were not alone among the characters in the saga to undergo this treatment. Judith’s maidservant too was affected. One of the most often noted aspects of the iconography is the new range of this figure’s characterizations. It has been seen above that by the late Middle Ages she had been granted the name ”Abra.” From the fifteenth century, her individuality began to be delineated visually, as artists portrayed her in a plethora of forms: young and old, vigorous and decrepit, black and white, fierce and mild, etc. The maidservant consequently garners an increasing share of the beholder’s attention. In Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith paintings, for instance, much has been made of the solidarity between the two women, which is formal and psychological, especially when they physically collaborate in the beheading. It is interesting to note that this unbiblical touch was not entirely new but rather an echo of the medieval tradition as seen in, for instance, the Hortus Deliciarum (see Fig. 4.2), where Judith bends to the task of beheading Holofernes with the maid’s arms around her shoulders. In any case, one finds a similar expansion of the maid’s role in literary and dramatic treatments of the late Renaissance and Baroque periods across Europe. She thus seems to share in a contemporary phenomenon affecting Judith as well. In French literature, it was in the sixteenth century that Judith’s own voice was heard for the first time (cf. Nassichuk, Chap. 10).

53Our volume brings particular attention to the rich Judithic literary tradition in early modern France, both Catholic and Protestant (Llewellyn, Nassichuk, Cummings). We have already noted the importance of the Old Testament Mystère tradition, which provided the roots for the flourishing of Judith dramas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As our authors show, there was significant intensification of the internal psychology of the heroine, within and beyond the terms set by the Vulgate text; the differing results, along the continuum from conventional piety to transgressive sensuality, bespeak yet again her intrinsic ambiguity (cf. Llewellyn, Chap. 11). The political implications were mined to explosive and shifting effect. The major biblical epic of the period, La Judit, begun by Du Bartas ca. 1564 for Queen Jeanne of Navarre, had a long and equivocal afterlife as Huguenot propaganda on both sides of the English Channel (cf. Cummings, Chap. 12). Such developments were not limited to France or to literature.

  • 36 The second-oldest German libretto, for example, is a translation of an Italian Judith libretto by (...)

54The ever more exigent voice of Judith was increasingly heard not only speaking but singing. The musical renderings, starting from early Baroque times (cf. Harness, Marsh, Chaps. 20 and 21), operated within the framework sketched above for literary and visual versions of the topic.36 Patrons of Judith oratorios, operas and intermedi included convents and other religious institutions, as well as secular rulers and civic entities whose interests intersected with those of the Church. The libretti they sponsored were shaped by the religious and political demands of the day, most notably the perceived threat to Christian Europe by the advances of the Ottoman Turks, of whom Holofernes was a symbol by virtue of being Assyrian. As in the other arts, the poets/librettists and composers who wrote Judith musical compositions included figures of the highest significance: Salvadori, Metastasio, Marco da Gagliano, Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Mozart.

55The expansion of Judith’s visibility onto an ever-wider cultural stage, already begun in the early modern period, intensified in the nineteenth century. By virtue of her inherent applicability to shifting contexts and ideologies, Judith was deployed in the service of such emergent discourses as nationalism, orientalism, and anti-Semitism. These themes, by which her political and cultural relevance was assured, were brought to prominence via opera and drama (cf. Lhâa, Pasler, Bernardini, Mecky Zaragoza, Chaps. 22–25). For the purposes of this essay, it is important to recognize that Judith did not step into the modern era entirely untethered from her traditional Christian (and Jewish) meanings. Indeed, her core identity as a divinely sanctioned savior of her people was essential to her deployment in political causes ranging from the Italian Risorgimento to the resistance of France to Prussia. Moreover, nineteenth-century social and political movements were played out against a backdrop of innovative biblical scholarship and translation that enriched contemporary understanding of the multiplicity of her roots and the ever-shifting history of her status.

56The wildly varied reception of the Book of Judith is a reminder that there is no Judith but the writing and staging of Judith. The truism that there are no facts in history or fiction independent of the culturally specific medium in which they are transmitted is vividly illuminated by the Book of Judith and its winding route across the millennia. From the start, her story was both sacred and fictional, a narrative informed by diverse and recurring patterns of salvation history (cf. Gera, Chap. 5, on the parallels to other stories of the Hebrew Bible). These essential factors colored its susceptibility to the addition of new symbolic strata. What is fascinating to see is that the early Christian transformations of the fictitious book shaped its later interpretive resilience long after Christianity had ceased to be the primary framework. It was Judith’s contradictory validation by the early Church – as both an historical figure and an abstract ”exemplum” – that guaranteed her enduring salience.

57On the cusp of the modern era, Judith became a source of contestation by those who regarded her as a holy woman and those who did not, but she was never a figure of indifference. Freud could make the decapitation of Holofernes a symbol of castration because Judith was already the product of many centuries of animated cultural appropriation in which her ”coup de grace” had acquired emblematic diversity – as divine act, as triumph of virtue over vice, as fatal blow to carnal lust, as severing of the chains of tyranny, as female act of liberation. In our own time, this variety makes Judith a natural protagonist for postmodern discourse, including that of contemporary popular culture, as she oscillates between apparently contradictory possibilities. The humble widow enshrined in medieval/Renaissance churches and the lead singer of the current band ”Wir sind Helden,” who adopted the name of ”Judith Holofernes,” are worlds apart. But they are linked by the complex strata of meaning accumulated since Jerome shaped the fictitious woman of the Book of Judith into a heroine. It is an astonishing career through Western cultural history.


1 Citations in this introduction are mainly limited to representative references to our specific themes. Full bibliographical details are provided in the referenced papers. Biblical books are referenced with the short titles following the Chicago style (cf. index under ”Bible”).

2 Among the important areas not considered here are the multiple traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, whose Bibles include the Book of Judith because they are based on the Greek Septuagint. Another is Spain, whose participation in the Judithic culture of Roman Catholicism was transmitted to the Americas.

3 Patrologia Latina (PL 29, Col. 37–39). The translation here is Lähnemann’s, based on that by Andrew S. Jacobs, University of California Riverside (, accessed 15 December 2009). With regard to the plural form of the unnamed addressees, Jacobs explains that Jerome was likely speaking to the brother bishops, Chromatius and Heliodorus, to whom he had dedicated earlier the adjacent book of Tobit. This is an alternative to the position of Tillemont (and others subsequently), who deduced from its being a book named after a woman that it was intended for Jerome’s ”beloved fellow-toilers” and companions in Bethlehem, Paula and her daughter Eustochium.

4 The status conceded by Jerome to the Book of Judith is taken up in the later notion of ”deuterocanonical” texts for those books which had been later accepted than the ”protocanonical” books and thus formed part of the Septuagint but not of the Hebrew Bible. This terminology was formalized by the Council of Trent (1545–1563).

5 See The Parallel Apocrypha. Greek text, King James Version, Douay Old Testament, the Holy Bible by Ronald Knox, Today’s English Version, New Revised Standard Version, New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, ed. by John R. Kohlenberger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) for varied approaches to the Book of Judith’s canonicity, including the Eastern Orthodox.

6 The unparalleled popularity of Judith during the Reformation is a main theme of Margarita Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior. Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1998); we adopt here her language on p. 46.

7 Judith of Bavaria (ca. 800–843) was, by virtue of her marriage to Louis I (the Pious) of France in 819, Holy Roman Empress and Queen of France.

8 This begins with Edna Purdie, The Story of Judith in German and English Literature (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1927); neither Otto Baltzer, Judith in der deutschen Literatur (Stoff-und Motivgeschichte der deutschen Literatur 7) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1930), nor David Radavich, A Catalogue of Works Based on the Apocryphal Book of Judith. From the Mediaeval Period to the Present (Bulletin of Bibliography 44) (Boston Book Co., 1987), pp. 189–92, added substantially to the earlier catalogue. The twentieth century is now charted by Theodore Ziolkowski, ”ReVisions, Fictionalizations, and Postfigurations. The Myth of Judith in the Twentieth Century,” The Modern Languages Review, 104 (2009), pp. 311–32. Volker Mergenthaler, Medusa Meets Holofernes. Poetologische, semiologische und intertextuelle Diskursivierung von Enthauptung (Bern: Peter Lang, 1997) jumps from the Septuagint to early modern times when discussing the discourse of beheading under poetological, semiologic, and intertextual aspects. The same applies to James C. VanderKam (ed.), Essays on Judith (Early Judaism and Its Literature 2) (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1992), and André Lacocque, Subversives, ou, Un Pentateuque de femmes (Lectio divina 148), (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1992), who continue trends in Judith Studies set by Luis Alonso-Schökel (ed.), Narrative Structures in the Book of Judith (Protocol of the colloquy of the Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture. The Graduate Theological Union and the University of California at Berkeley 11) (Berkeley, CA: University of California at Berkeley, 1975), and Toni Craven, Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith (Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 70) (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983).

9 The ”Vetus Latina,” which was based on the Septuagint (and which Jerome used to borrow certain phrases for his shorter text), lingered on in some places through the early Celtic adapters of Latin Bible translations. It may have influenced the Anglo-Saxon Judith (cf. Cooper, Chap. 9) but otherwise its impact on the Western Christian tradition is negligible.

10 An important literary reliance upon the Septuagint in the early modern period is the epic French poem La Judit by Du Bartas, published in 1574; see the discussion by Robert Cummings in this volume (Chap. 12).

11 The following section is partly based on Henrike Lähnemann’s, ”Hystoria Judith”: Deutsche Judithdichtungen vom 12. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert (Scrinium Friburgense 20) (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2006), chapter 1.

12 This came to be fundamentally challenged in the sixteenth century by Lutheranpolemics against ”contaminated” biblical translations. For the Protestant Bible translators, the Humanist battlecry ”back to the sources” was even more pertinent for the word of God than for classical learning; only a purified text based on the best manuscripts and edited with scholarly precision in the original language could provide the proper basis for understanding Scripture, not a garbled post-classical Latin translation based on dubious sources, such as Jerome’s.

13 James H. Morey, ”Peter Comestor, Biblical Paraphrase, and the Medieval Popular Bible,” in Speculum 68 (1993), pp. 6–35. There is no critical edition of the Judith-part of the ”Historia Scholastica,” only the single Patrologia Latina edition. For the wide range of other versions of the popular book, one has to consult Maria Sherwood-Smith, ”Studies in the Reception of the ’Historia scholastica’ of Peter Comestor.” The ”Schwarzwälder Predigten,” the ”Weltchronik” of Rudolf von Ems, the ”Scolastica” of Jacob van Maerlant, and the ”Historiebijbel van 1360” (medium ævum monographs. new series XX) (Oxford: Blackwell for the Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 2000).

14 Cf. Fig. 4.1 which illustrates the mistranslation of conopeum as ”cushion” (German: küssy) in one of the prevalent fourteenth-century translations: Henrike Lähnemann, ”From Print to Manuscript. The Case of a Manuscript Workshop in Stuttgart around 1475,” in The Book in Germany, eds. William A. Kelly et al. (Edinburgh: Merchiston Publishing, 2010), pp. 24–40.

15 There are four distinct translations of the Vulgate into German in the course of the fourteenth century; in these, and in these only, are full translations (as distinct from rhyming paraphrases or retellings in the ”Historienbibel”) of the Book of Judith extant. They were all copied in the fifteenth century but only one translation made it into print and thus became dominant (Lähnemann, Hystoria Judith, p. 75).

16 For example, the Vier Historien (four stories), the second oldest vernacular book to be printed (Albrecht Pfister: Bamberg, 1462), is an illustrated compilation of the stories of Joseph, Daniel, Tobit, and Judith.

17 This came via the Hellenistic generic term in the Septuagint for the post of handmaiden, preserved as a loan word in the Vulgate. A name was derived as early as the early twelfth century when the German verse poem ”Die Jüngere Judith” calls the servant girl Ava – incidentally also the name of the first-known female poet in Germany, Frau Ava, whose biblical poems are preserved in the same manuscript.

18 One important literary example extends beyond the geographical borders of this volume, namely Judita (1501) by Marko Marulic, the foundational work of Croatian literature. Its context is generally held to have been the invasions of his homeland by the Ottoman Turks. See the modern English translation: Judith / [Marko Marulic], edited and translated from the Croatian by Henry R. Cooper (Boulder, CO and New York: East European Monographs and Columbia University Press, 1991).

19 A recent general source is Jeffrey Spier et al., Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, exhibition catalogue, Kimbell Art Museum (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 18–20.

20 Letter 53, ca. 394 c.e. Ciletti thanks Catherine Conybeare for her illuminating discussion on Paulinus, Nola, and Jerome (personal conversation). See her book, Paulinus Noster (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). For an English translation of Jerome’s letter, see the Catholic Encyclopedia online (, accessed 26/12/09).

21 See, for example, Per Nordhagen, The Frescoes of John VII (A.D. 705–707) in S. Maria Antiqua in Rome (Acta ad Archaeologiam et Artium Historiam Pertinentia), Istitutem Romanum Norvegiae, vol. III (Rome: Bretschneider, 1968), pp. 3–4, 70–71, 88–91. They are located on the north transenna.

22 Eva Tea, La Basilica di Santa Maria Antiqua (Milan: Società Editrice ”Vita e Pensiero,” 1937), p. 161, links the frescoes to the allegorical reading of Judith and Esther as antetypes of Ecclesia by St. Isidoro (560–636).

23 Frances Gray Godwin, ”The Judith Illustration of the ’Hortus Deliciarum’,” in Gazette des beaux-arts, 36 (1949), pp. 25–46. Illuminated Bibles (Septuagint) with Judith imagery existed in Eastern traditions as well. For an Armenian example of the fourteenth century, cf. Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Miniature Painting in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia from the Twelfth to the Fourteenth Century, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1993).

24 These individual works of art and the iconographic history they constitute have generated an immense body of scholarship. Among the more useful overviews, beyond the lists in the standard iconography compilations, are the article by Mira Friedman, ”The Metamorphoses of Judith,” Jewish Art, 12–13 (1986–87), pp. 225–47, which includes Jewish material; chapter 5 of Mary Garrard, Artemesia Gentileschi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); and the monograph by Jaynie Anderson, Judith (Paris: Éditions du Regard, 1997). The interdisciplinary study by Stocker, Judith: Sexual Warrior (1998), offers a wide-ranging but uneven treatment of visual and other materials and themes addressed in this section.

25 The general Marian cast of the typological scheme of the Sistine Ceiling, articulated by Esther Gordon Dotson in 1979 (”An Augustinian Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling,” Art Bulletin, 61, pp. 223–56, 405–29), has recently been updated, with the specific role of Judith clarified, by Kim Butler, ”The Immaculate Body in the Sistine Ceiling,” Art History, 32:2, April 2009, pp. 250–89.

26 For a full list cf. Adelheid Straten, Das Judith-Thema in Deutschland im 16. Jahr-hundert. Studien zur Ikonographie. Materialien und Beiträge (Munich: Minerva-Fachserie Kunst, 1983).

27 Ciletti thanks Christine Rolland for informing her about this and other French Judithic sites and for taking her there. An accessible general introduction to the paintings at Ancy (1596–1611), with illustrations, is Magali Bélime-Droguet, ”Nicolas de Hoey. De Fontainebleau à Ancy-le-Franc,” Revue de l’art, 163:1 (2009), pp. 45–54. For the slightly earlier Judith window in the village of Belmesnil in Upper Normandy, see Laurence Riviale, Le vitrail en Normandie entre Renaissance et Réforme (1517–1596) (Corpus Vitrearum, France, Études, VII) (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2007), pp. 365–69.

28 Cf. Bettina Baumgärtel and Silvia Neysters, Die Galerie der starken Frauen: Die Heldin in der franzoschischen und italienischen Kunst des 17. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Keinkhardt and Biermann, 1995).

29 Among the signposts in this discourse are the articles in American Imago by Graeme Taylor, ”Judith and the Infant Hercules,” 41:2 (1984), pp. 101–15, and Laurie Schneider, ”Donatello and Caravaggio: The Iconography of Decapitation,” 33:1 (1976), pp. 76–91. Cf. also Mary Jacobus, Reading Women (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) and Richard Spear, ”Artemisia Gentileschi, Ten Years of Fact and Fiction,” The Art Bulletin, 82 (September 2000), pp. 568–79.

30 For both painters, the twin poles of the psychoanalytic axis are the brutality of their treatments of the beheading of Holofernes and the documented episodes of violence in their lives – Caravaggio’s criminal record of assaults and even a killing (1606); Gentileschi’s sexual violation as detailed in trial proceedings (against Agostino Tassi, 1612). Accessible sources include the documentary appendices in Catherine Puglisi, Caravaggio (London and New York: Phaidon, 2000), Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi (1989) and Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, ed. Keith Christiansen and Judith Mann (New York and New Haven, CT: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2001).

31 These extend back at least as far as the sixth-century Greek chronicle by John Malalas. See Elena Ciletti, ”Patriarchal Ideology in the Renaissance Iconography of Judith,” in Marilyn Migiel and Juliana Schiesari (eds.), Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renassiance (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 35–70, especially pp. 45–46.

32 See, e.g., Caroline Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2003); Flavio Caroli, Fede Galizia (Turin: Allemandi, 1989).

33 Querciolo Mazzonis, Spirituality, Gender and the Self in Renaissance Italy: Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474–1540) (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2007), pp. 63–4. The Ursulines were soon forced to accept enclosure.

34 Dialogo della institution delle donne (Venice: Ferrari, 1545, and many times there-after, in Italian and Latin).

35 Communication to the authors, August 31, 2009.

36 The second-oldest German libretto, for example, is a translation of an Italian Judith libretto by the foremost German poet of his time, Martin Opitz (1635); it presents a direct continuation of the sixteenth-century drama tradition.


Elena Ciletti is Professor of Art History at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her research interests include Italian patronage and art from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. She has contributed articles on images of Judith to Refiguring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance (1991) and The Artemisia Files (2005). She is working on a book-length study of the iconography of Judith in Catholic Reformation culture.

Henrike Lähnemann holds the Chair of German Studies at Newcastle University. Her main areas of research are medieval German literature in the Latin context, manuscript studies and the interface of text and image. In 2006, she published a monograph on medieval German versions of the Book of Judith (”Hystoria Judith. Deutsche Judithdichtungen vom 11. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert”).


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