Judith with the Head of Holofernes

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Lavinia Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c.1600

Picture it, biblical Israel.

The Israelis are in the midst of a war with the Assyrians. Bethulia, a town in the little narrow strip towards Jerusalem, is under siege. For 34 days, just over a month, this town has been taken hostage by the brutal, dominating Assyrians, lead by the horrifying General Holofernes. The people of Bethulia who started off strong and passionate are now exhausted and debilitated, growing even more so by the day. They're five days out from surrender, unable to continue. They pray for divine intervention but in their state faith in their success is dwindling. What they need is a miracle, or a gorgeous, badass, jewish lady.

This is the story of Judith and Holofernes, one of the Bible's best stories of women heroes. Lavinia Fontana, one of the first significant female artists, was certainly a fan of such stories. Though she was most famous as the first female a court painter in the male-dominated public art sphere, she painted many mythological and biblical paintings. Her focus in most of these works was the woman's perspective, like in Noli Mi Tangere and The Assumption of the Virgin. Her religious works show the emotion and passion of the women in the biblical world and their importance in the stories. Therefore it is natural for an artist with such focuses to create her own version one of the most frequently painted biblical stories of the non-Jesus variety.

Judith, a notably beautiful widow, is the hero Bethulia needed. She hears of the plan to surrender and absolutely refuses to backdown. She will not tolerate an oppression of her people, so she concocts a plan. She adorns herself in beautiful jewels and dons a stunning and provocative outfit, transcending her already stunning beauty, before leaving her city behind. She enters the Assyrian camp and claims to be a deserter with information on how to bring down the Jews once and for all. Holofernes is completely taken by her. She is invited to feast with him and she spouts all manor of lies about the defenses in Bethulia. By the end of the night, Holofernes is set on taking her to bed. Upon reaching his chambers, however, he is so inebriated from an evening of feasting that he is nearly defenseless. Judith takes the mighty general's sword from it's scabbard and uses it to slice off the enemy's head with two strong strikes. Her servant rushes in to collect the severed head and the two disappear over the horizon of the camp long before any of the Assyrians discover what has happened. Upon arriving in Bethulia again, she presents the head to her people, who rally immediately, revived to their own strength and proceed to chase the Assyrians out of their land and far from Bethulia.

Fontana paints herself as Judith, clad in a sensual blood red, and all the adornments of the original story. The head of Holofernes sinks into the shadows, far from the focus of the painting. All of the emphasis is on the strength of Judith. Rather showing her as a bloodthirsty woman hacking off the head of a general as is seen in most other renditions of the story, Fontana paints her regal and put together, showing the power of the feminine, and holding the head as a symbol that her people will not back down.

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