The story of Judith and Holofernes is related in a book of apocrypha from the Roman Catholic Old Testament (it is present in neither the Jewish or Protestant set of texts). Judith is a beautiful, virtuous widow, whom God instructs to murder the general of the invading Assyrian army, Holofernes. She is an innocent woman, without experience in violence or war, and is consequently able to avoid suspicion when sneaking into the army's camp with her unnamed maidservant. Holofernes attempts to seduce her at a dinner, but drinks a bit too much wine and passes out.

Using a sword, she decapitates sleeping Holofernes and hides his head in a basket, which her maidservant helps her carry back to their beseiged city. Holofernes' head is placed on the city's walls, and the next day, the confused, frightened, and leaderless Assyrians are slaughtered by the previously helpless defenders.

The primary (perhaps only) reason this narrative is still known is because it became the subject for innumerable paintings by some of the most famous painters in Western History: Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Gentileschi, Michelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, Fontana, Mantegna, and many others. In the period surrounding and including the Renaissance, most patronage came from the Catholic church, and most often in the form of commissions for paintings of famous biblical scenes.

Nearly as important as the artists who depicted the story, however, is the story itself: in the twentieth-century, awash in methodologies which seek to analyze art and literature accoring to Freudian and non-Freudian psychology, feminism, post-feminism, structuralism, post-structuralism, dialectical materialism, anthropology, etc., the story of a widowed woman beheading a man at the height of his society's power structure seems fascinating to art historians.

They search for clues to Caravaggio's much-maligned sexual identity in his portrayal of what they describe as a fantasy of castration; they see in Artemisia Gentileschi's version the subordinated rage of a female painter in a thoroughly sexist society; they note Botticelli's slavish assent to class hierarchies, ostensibly demonstrated by the fact that his Judith is dressed very expensively.

Unfortunately, these reductive biographical analyses fail to consider the contexts in which these works were executed, a time of great religious fervor and general optimism; they superimpose contemporary theories onto artists who, in all likelihood, intellectually and conceptually composed their works with clarity and calculation, in order to (a) properly treat a subject which they believed was of great importance, and (b) make some money to pay for paint. Caravaggio was probably a homosexual, but that doesn't mean his entire ouerve is defined by his sexuality, any more than black artists only deal with "black" themes, female artists with "female" themes, etc.

The story of Judith and Holofernes was popular with the lay people as a gory, gruesome tale of courage and victory (as with many popular movies today). The artists who painted it were probably not dreamily projecting sexual fantasies or raging against the only society they knew, manifesting their personal secrets on a canvas to be hung in a church.

They painted it as they understood it: the story of a brave person who was selected to commit a murderous crime. In other words, they made art as all good artists do: as humans.

Sources: art history classes, museums, a number of articles written by cheeky pedants like me, etc.

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