Judith: “the deliverer of her people”, her strength and heroism and the cognitive dissonance associated with her Harrowing Hell
The subject of Judith, “the deliverer of her people”, is commonly used in the Power of Women tradition, in art and literature.
Here’s what Wikepedia says:
The Book of Judith – A Possible Parable
The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors.
Judith’s home, the city of Bethulia, was going to be destroyed by an Assyrian general, Holofernes.
She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites.
Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen.
The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
The Book of Judith can be split into two parts or “acts” of approximately equal length.
Chapters 1–7 describe the rise of the threat to Israel, led by the evil king Nebuchadnezzar and his sycophantic general Holofernes, and is concluded as Holofernes’ world-wide campaign has converged at the mountain pass where Judith’s village, Bethulia, is located.
Chapters 8–16 then introduce Judith and depict her heroic actions to save her people. Part I, although at times tedious in its description of the military developments, develops important themes by alternating battles with reflections and rousing action with rest. In contrast, the second half is devoted mainly to Judith’s strength of character and the beheading scene.
Artists Representing Judith
Artists have been torn between representing Judith as god-fearing and chaste vs. the epitome of depraved seduction.
Early artists have mainly chosen one of two possible scenes (with or without the servant): the decapitation, with Holofernes prone on the bed, or the heroine holding or carrying the head, often assisted by her maid.
Judith was one of the virtuous women whom Van Beverwijck mentioned in his published apology (1639) for the superiority of women to men.
Northern Renaissance artists and scholars, used a sexualized femininity and sometimes contradictory masculine aggression version of Judith.
In the late Renaissance Judith changed considerably, a change described as a “fall from grace”—from an image of Mary she turns into a figure of Eve.
In Germany an interest developed in female “worthies” and heroines, to match the traditional male sets. Subjects combining sex and violence were also popular with collectors.
The allegorical and exciting nature of the Judith and Holofernes scene continues to inspire artists. In the late nineteenth century, Jean Charles Cazin made a series of five paintings tracing the narrative and giving it a conventional, nineteenth-century ending; the final painting shows her “in her honoured old age,” and “we shall see her sitting in her house spinning.”
Modern paintings of the scene often cast Judith nude, as was signalled already by Klimt.
Franz Stuck’s 1928 Judith has “the deliverer of her people” standing naked and holding a sword besides the couch on which Holofernes, half-covered by blue sheets—where the text portrays her as god-fearing and chaste, “Franz von Stuck’s Judith becomes, in dazzling nudity, the epitome of depraved seduction”.
Background in early Christianity
The Book of Judith was accepted by Jerome as canonical and accepted in the Vulgate, and thus images of Judith were as acceptable as those of other scriptural women.
In early Christianity, however, images of Judith were far from sexual or violent: she was usually depicted as “a type of the praying Virgin or the church or as a figure who tramples Satan and harrows Hell,” that is, in a way that betrayed no sexual ambivalence: “the figure of Judith herself remained unmoved and unreal, separated from real sexual images and thus protected.”
Harrowing of Hell
In the context of Christian theology, the Harrowing of Hell (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos, “the descent of Christ into hell”) is the Old English and Middle English term for the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell (or Hades) between the time of his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when he brought salvation to all of the righteous who had died since the beginning of the world (excluding the damned).
After his death, the soul of Jesus was supposed to have descended into the realm of the dead, which the Apostles’ Creed calls “hell” in the old English usage.
The realm into which Jesus descended is called Sheol or Limbo by some Christian theologians to distinguish it from the hell of the damned.
Christ having descended to the underworld is alluded to in the New Testament in 1 Peter 3:19–20, which speaks of Jesus preaching to “the imprisoned spirits”.
A.D Hope said it best in his poem, An Epistle from Holofernes
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