Last week I visited the The Art Institute of Chicago. I wanted to see the Victorian Photocollage collection on disply before it left January 3. After wandering through the incredible art work of Victorian women, I decided to go see Carrevegio’s The Supper at Emmaus that is on loan to the institute to the end of this month. Then I wandered around the European Art section, and that’s when I saw her. She was looking straight at me with a raised sword in her hand, nude, a man’s head at her hip. I wondered which goddess this was, and I did think she was one of the Greek or Roman goddesses: she was sensual and powerful, a warrior goddess. I walked over to see who this warrior woman was, and I gasped, thought “Oh there’s  no way that’s her,” then read the panel again. It didn’t say Artemis, or Diane, or even Ishtar. This painting was of Judith, the apocryphal heroine of the inter-testament times. The Aprocrapha are the books in between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. They were written in Greek (not Hebrew), and Judaism and most Protestant religions don’t consider them Scriptures; Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches do. Follow me after the break to see the painting that I have been obsessed with since I saw it, and why I was so surprised to see this was a painting of Judith.

(If you don’t like naked or nudity, then please do not continue. Any comments or emails along the lines of “If you were a real Christian you wouldn’t post that smut” will be deleted, period.)

Come, see my sovereign vision for this year…

Judith by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

Why was I so surprised by this painting? Because Judith is a pious widow in the Aprocrypha who spends her time fasting and praying after the death of her husband. The author goes to great lengths to show that nothing happened between her and Holofernes, so she maintains her ritual purity. In most paintings she is fully clothed in garb that resembles a nun habit. She is shown with a pious, prayerful look on her face. If the sword is in the picture, she is not wielding it, and Holofernes’ head is always in the bag, not in open view. She is the Virgin Mary of the Aprocrypha: pure, holy, pious, meek, and submissive. Not virginal, but definitely celibate.

She is none of those things in this picture: In this picture she is strong, sensual, powerful, and a warrior. The sword is in her hand, ready to strike. Holoferne’s head is out in the open. She has yet to put in the bag. Pious she may be, but meek and submissive she is not (she’s not those in the story either). She is a sovereign woman who knows how to protect and defend her territory. Not to mention the territory of her people. She is a warrior queen.

Here is Judith’s story:

The Book of Judith in the Aprocrypha is a novel set during the Greek occupation of Israel. The Greeks forbade the Jewish people to worship Yahweh and killed who ever would not worship their gods. They descrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the alter. This is the backdrop for Judith. The novel itself is set during the time of Nebuchadnezzar (about 300 years earlier). Nebuchadnezzar has sent his general Holofernes to destroy those countries who did not come fight with him on a previous campaign. Isreal did not, so Holofernes is laying seige to the moutain passes that lead into southern Judah and Jerusalem. Judith lives in a small town that has to hold the moutain pass, or Holofernes will have a clear shot to Jerusalem and destroy the holy city and the temple. The towns springs are outside of the city, and Holofernes captures them, so that the people will die of thirst if they don’t surrender.

The people are dying of thirst and want to surrender. The leaders of the town tell the people to wait another five days for Godde to defend them and come to their aid. If Godde does not, then the leaders will surrender, and the people will go into slavery. Judith is a rich widow who never remarried, and runs her former husband’s estate. She is an independent women of means. She is also pious. Since her husband died, she wears widow’s garb and sackcloth, fasts except for Sabbaths and feast days, and lives in a tent she has pitched on the roof of her house. She only lives in the house on Sabbaths and feast days. She spends her time praying. Judith calls the leaders of the town, and upbraids them for putting Godde to test. She tells them she has a plan. She tells them to tell the guards to let her and her maid out the gates and that Godde will use her to deliver Holofernes into their hands. They agree.

Judith removes her sackcloth and widow’s clothes, bathes, and dresses in the clothes she wore when she was a bride. Her maid prepares kosher food and places it in a bag, so they will not eat unclean food. They leave for the gate. The townspeople do not recognize Judith. They never realized what a beautiful woman she was. The gatekeepers let the two women out of the gates, and they don’t walk far before they are taken prisoner by Holofernes’ men. They bring the women into camp, and Judith tells Holofernes that she can help him defeat the people of the mountain pass so he can raze all of Israel. She tells him that Yahweh will protect the people as long as they obey Yahweh’s instructions. But the people were not going to give their first fruits and tithes to Godde and the priests; they were going to keep them for themselves. Judith told Holofernes that she would pray every night, and Godde would tell her when the people had sinned. Once the sin had taken place the people would not have Godde’s protection, and Holofernes would have no trouble destroying the town and taking the pass. Holofernes agrees to her plan. She was a beautiful woman and he wanted her. He was also conceited enough to believe the whole thing to be the truth. (I highly doubt he was thinking above the waist.) He set her up in a tent, and she established a routine of leaving after midnight to go pray and wash in the springs to maintain her ritual purity. Her maid always went with her.

The fourth night Holofernes had a banquet for Judith, and only for Judith. None of his soldiers were invited. He had grand plans of seduction and sex. Judith had other plans. Judith ate her food and drank sparingly while Holofernes feasted and became drunk. So drunk he passed out on his bed (so much for seduction and sex). In a bit of ironic humor the writer says he was “dead drunk.” Judith walked to his bed, took out his sword, and with two strokes, she cut off his head. She rolled his body off the bed and tore down the canopy. She handed his head to her maid, who was right outside the bedchamber, and the maid put Holoferne’s head in the bag that had held their food. The two women then walked through the camp and past the guards for their nightly prayers and returned to their town.

In town Judith showed Holofernes’ head to the people, showed them the canopy from his bed and told them that she had not slept with him and defiled herself (I’m not sure why the canopy from the bed proves this). She tells the town leaders to order the men up to the passes and hills to attack. The Isrealite men did as Judith said. As Judith knew, the soldiers would wake up the commanders and generals for orders. They found Holofernes’ headless body and fled. Isreal was safe thanks to the courage and bravery of this widow.

In their Femmes Fatales Guide The Art Institute notes this about the painting:

Hemessen emphasized Judith’s morality and heroism, capturing her solemn yet directed gaze and emphasizing her muscular and dynamic form. However, by choosing to depict her nude, he also hinted at her sensuality.

Finally, a painting that fits the Judith we read about and doesn’t make her a pious nun-figure after the action. Here she is the mighty warrior queen in action.

This is what I want to be. A powerful woman who knows my sovereignty and owns it. A warrior who knows how to govern and defend her territory. A woman not afraid of her sensuality and sexuality. I want to be this sensual, powerful, brave warrior queen. I believe that is who I am on the inside. Now I just have to figure out how to get her on the ouside too.

What about you? What do you want to be in this new year? Do you have a picture, poem, or story that has inspired you?

For other warrior women check out these posts:

The 12th Century B.C.E. Career Woman
Standing Between God and the People