Lucas Cranach the Elder: Judith with the Head of Holophernes (1530)


(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria)

A painting by the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). The woman on this rather gruesome painting is Judith, a beautiful widow who saved the Jewish people, from the deuterocanonical book of Judith (deuterocanonical means that the biblical book is not part of the Hebrew Bible). According to the story Nebuchadnezzar, 'king of Nineveh and Assyria' (in reality king 
Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon), send his general Holophernes to the West to punish 'all the nations of the West that had withheld their assistance when Nebuchadnezzar was fighting Cheleud and the king of Media'. Holophernes managed to occupy all the nations and eventually laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia (perhaps a fictitious town). The city was about to fall when Judith used her charm to become an intimate friend of Holophernes and promises him crucial information. She is allowed into the Assyrian camp and into the tent of the Assyrian general. When Holophernes gets drunk, Judith then beheads him with his sword. Having lost their leader, the Assyrian army retreats. Judith with the head of Holophernes was a popular theme in art and Lucas Cranach made at least 6 versions of the subject. All the versions are almost completely identical: Judith is depicted in a 16th century Saxon court gown (today known as a 'Cranach dress', named after the artist), a sword and the head of the general. This version comes from 1530.

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