What is happening in Cristofano Allori’s painting Judith With the Head of Holofernes?
- The Power of Women topos
- Heroism and subversion
- Two shiny droplets – jewels on a golden robe
Click here for the podcast version of this piece:
Judith With the Head of Holofernes was my best surprise at the Uffizi Gallery. Cristofano Allori contrasts brightest light and deepest shadow here. That makes sense because it tells a dramatic story. This tale of Judith’s vengeance reads as unforgettable. It intrigued and inspired many Renaissance painters, like Allori. Judith’s Bible story stands out because this fearsome woman subverted conventions. Women didn’t wield such ferocious power. Except for Judith, the widow of Palestine.
Holofernes, an Assyrian general, besieged her homeland. After losing everything that mattered to her, the captivating Judith trapped him. She drugged his wine and sliced the general’s head off when he was weak. Our heroine then carried it back to her avenged people – the victor. Cristofano Allori chose this moment of glory for Judith With the Head of Holofernes. The painter couples her with an awestruck maid. She’s shrouded in a fresh white headdress – like a halo of innocence next to the wild woman, Judith.
Biblical women don’t tend to be trixters. Many may seem tricky because of weakness or impulsivity. Eve in Eden sets an example of this. But Judith stands out from other biblical women with strength and strategy. In fact, she’s pernicious, relentless, and vengeful to the bone marrow. We know that thanks to her manner and deed. Allori gives us a whole new kind of woman in this Renaissance painting. Judith With the Head of Holofernes wields power rather than mere wiles. Yes, she was a seductress. It wasn’t to benefit the man this time, though. Holofernes only got decapitation out of this tryst.
Vengeful Biblical Widow = Judith
Judith had nothing to lose when she vanquished Holofernes. She was a widow living among rubble and trauma. That’s what makes her the Bible’s John Wick. All that mattered to her was revenge. It’s this kind of laser focus that gets an assassin’s job done. There’s a purity of purpose in her actions. We see this in Cristofano Allori’s portrayal. She has a placid, porcelain, countenance. Her face reads cold and clean. This is a peaceful, beautiful, woman. The painter also clad her in golden robes. Judith’s pristine youth contrasts the withered maid beside her. This elderly woman gazes at her; aghast in awe.
After all, Judith strikes a splendid, though vicious, pose. She killed the story’s terrifying monster. His head drips blood in her grasp right then and there. Still, Allori gives us the G-rated version of this gory tale. Judith and her maid wear white. Their faces reflect light while Holofernes lurks in shadows. These dark shadings obscure the bloody wreck under his beard. All viewers see are a few ruby red droplets – like jewels against Judith’s damask robes. There’s glory to this detail. Allori reflects the drops in a luxuriant sweep of this shiny red in a fabric frame around Judith. His blood colors her cape of honor.
In Judith’s other hand she grips a sword. She holds it with ease and confidence. Even without the head in her frontal fingers, we see that she knows how to use it. Her arm extends with an elegant grace that seems completed by the sword’s golden gilt. It suits her physique like another limb. I like how the sword sits in darkness much like the neck of Holofernes. Allori balances Judith With the Head of Holofernes with equal parts light and dark.
That darkness lives behind Judith. It’s in her past. There’s only one somber element in front and it’s under her control. That’s the wretched head of her enemy. She holds it with effortless ease. This points to my favorite thing about Allori’s masterpiece. It’s a portrait of a woman. But it’s nothing about what it means to be a woman. Instead Judith With the Head of Holofernes exemplifies what it means to be a hero.
Judith With the Head of Holofernes – FAQs
What happened to the Bible’s book of Judith?
The Book of Judith is deuterocanonical. It appeared in the Catholic versions of the Bible Italians read during the Renaissance, for instance. But it’s not canon for all and is excluded in most Protestant Bibles today. That’s why this excellent question has many complicated answers. We may never know the absolute truth of the matter. But theories abound about its removal. Here are the majors:
– It was written too late
– Politics (supported the Hasmonean Dynasty)
– Possible Greek origin
– Judith’s character: brazen, diabolical… and female
Let’s not overreact, though. The Book of Judith is only one of seventy five that are excluded from biblical canon. She’s not alone and in the fascinating, fun, company of outsiders.
Why is Cristofano Allori’s Judith With the Head of Holofernes an important painting?
There are many wonderful Judith paintings including a Caravaggio, Klimt, and Botticelli. Judith even remains a favorite subject for artists today. Cristofano Allori created a standout star in his portrayal. That’s not only thanks to its exquisite beauty.
Judith With the Head of Holofernes epitomizes the Power of Women topos. This was prevalent in Northern Renaissance art. The topos includes “images drawn from historical, mythological, and biblical sources that illustrate women’s power over men, specifically as a result of their sexual attractiveness”. *
It’s a complex art category with pros and cons. These continue to create controversy among art lovers and critics. One thing we all agree about, though. Judith With the Head of Holofernes by Allori illustrates the Power of Women topos to perfection.
What makes Cristofano Allori a significant painter?
The short answer is a two parter: technical skill and Judith With the Head of Holofernes. He showed extraordinary delicacy and accuracy in natural, realistic Renaissance paintings. The best and most famous example is his portrayal of Judith beheading Holofernes. It’s an iconic masterpiece and key representative for the Power of Women topos in art history canon.
ENJOYED THIS Judith With the Head of Holofernes ANALYSIS?
Check out these other essays on Bible Story Paintings
- Salomon, Nanette (2004). Shifting Priorities: Gender and Genre in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting. Stanford University Press.
Russell, H Diane (ed), Eva/Ave; Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990
Christiansen, Ellen Juhl (2009). Xeravits, Géza (ed.). “Judith: Defender of Israel Preserver of the Temple” In A Pious Seductress: Studies in the Book of Judith. Walter de Gruyter.
Hall, James, Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 1996 (2nd edn.), John Murray
Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Allori, Alessandro“. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Lucy Whitaker, Martin Clayton, The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection; Renaissance and Baroque, Royal Collection Publications, 2007
A Pious Seductress: Studies in the Book of Judith (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 14), Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 2012
Smith, Susan L., The Power of Women: A ‘Topos’ in Medieval Art and Literature., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995
Stocker, Margarita. (1998). Judith : sexual warrior, women and power in Western culture. New Haven: Yale University Press
Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art, 1985, Harry N. Abrams