Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Judith kills Holofernes
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This manuscript illumination depicts Judith, a beautiful Jewish widow, beheading Holofernes, an Assyrian general who is laying siege to Judith's home, the city of Bethulia. In the picture, there is a depiction of Judith beheading the drunken general with his own sword as well as presenting the severed head to the people of Bethulia. In some depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes, she is seen with her maid assisting in carrying the severed head. This story comes from the Book of Judith which had wide appeal during the medieval period. While Jerome included the book in his Latin translation of the Septuagint, he identified it as apocryphal and outside the biblical canon.

    This detail of Judith is the last of four illustrations featured on one of 45 illustrated pages from what is described by scholars as a picture bible or illustrated preface to a psalter. This unfinished manuscript dates to the 1190s and is thought to be from northern France. An illustration of a monk praying in front of St. Bertin suggests that it may have been made for a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Bertin in the diocese of Arras. The manuscript contains scenes from both the Old and New Testaments as well as the lives of the saints. On the page with this illustration of Judith are three others; they are organized in quadrants. The upper left image depicts Saul speaking with the ghost of Samuel, who has been raised by the Witch of Endor, and the decapitation of Saul’s and his sons' corpses by a Philistine. The upper right shows a young David being anointed by Samuel and a grown David being crowned. The bottom left depicts Solomon in prayer in front of the temple, and the bottom right is the illustration of Judith.

    This manuscript's depiction of Judith and Holofernes subverts traditional gender roles of the medieval period. She is an active, violent figure, which are qualities usually ascribed to men. In contrast, Holofernes is the passive victim at that moment. Judith, while represented as an attractive young woman, also embodies masculinity when she takes up Holofernes' sword and murders him with it. Swinging the sword above her, she determinedly holds the head for the death blows. Judith also asserts her ownership of Holofernes' death by presenting his head in front of the gates of Bethulia. In the manuscript, Judith's pose before the gate echoes that of David, the boy and king depicted in the second illustration of the page, who slew Goliath. This draws a visual parallel with Judith as a warrior. Like David’s killing of Goliath, Judith was able to be victorious over Holofernes because of her faith in God, and it was through His strength that she wielded the sword.

    Judith was also a model for the Christian virtue of chastity. The manuscript depicts Judith as a beautiful young woman with braided, long, curly brunette hair in a pink dress. Though widowed, she does not have her hair covered, but displayed, and her form-fitting dress further enhances her delicate attractiveness. By stressing her sexual appeal and weakness, the manuscript interrogates Judith's femininity and her chastity as sources of power. In Church teachings chastity and celibacy were the next best thing to outright virginity. Judith, the widow (who could not, therefore, actually be a virgin), came to represent virginity's virtues. Thus, even murder could be absorbed into a traditional morality, for, as St Jerome opined, in beheading Holofernes, Judith as Chastity had decapitated the sin of lust.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Judith (Biblical Figure) in Art Holofernes (Biblical Figure) Violence in Art Warfare and Warriors, Image of
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 12
  • Date: circa 1190-1200
  • Related Work: Full manuscript page with Judith, the Hague, KB, 76 F 5, fol. 43r.
    Picture Bible, the Hague, KB, 76 F 5, fully digitized.
    Judith killing Holofernes, Harding Bible, ca. 1109-1111, Dijon, Bibliotheque Municipale 14.
    Judith, Humilitas, and Jael, Speculum Virginum, ca. 1140. London, British Library, MS Arundel 44, fol. 34v.
    Judith and her servant, Herrad of Hohenbourg, Hortus Deliciarum, fol. 60r. The manuscript was created circa 1167–85. It was destroyed in 1870. This image comes from a copy made in 1818.
    The death of Holofernes, Paris, Sainte Chapelle, Judith Window, ca. 1245.
  • Current Location: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), KB, 76 F 5, fol. 43r
  • Original Location: Northeastern France, possibly the Benedictine Abbey of St. Bertin in Saint-Omer
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint; Gold;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 22/15/[full page]
  • Inscription: Caption beneath the miniature: “Mittit ad infernum gladius Judith hic holofernu[m]” [Here Judith’s sword sends Holofernes to hell]
  • Related Resources:

    Bradley, Jill. 'You shall surely not die : The Concepts of Sin and Death as Expressed in the Manuscript Art of Northwestern Europe, c. 800-1200. Brill, 2008. Pages 474-479.

    Ciletti, Elena and Henrike Lähnemann. “Judith in the Christian Tradition.” The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines. Edited by Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti and Henrike Lähnemann. Open Book Publishers, 2010. Pages 41-65. Available open access.

    Lucas, Peter J. “Judith and the Woman Hero.” Yearbook of English Studies 22 (1992): 17-27.

    Mellinkoff, Ruth. “Two Erotic Women Warriors: Sexy, Violent and Lethal.” Tributes to Lucy Freeman Sandler: Studies in Illuminated Manuscripts. Edited by Kathryn A. Smith and Carol H. Krinsky. Harvey Miller, 2007. Pages 397-413.

    Stocker, Margarita. Judith: Sexual Warrior, Women and Power in Western Culture. Yale University Press, 1998.

    Stone, Nira. “Judith and Holofernes: Some Observations on the Development of the Scene in Art.” Studies in Armenian Art: Collected Papers. By Nira Stone. Brill, 2019. Pages 49-69.