Jan van Hemessen – Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1540). Detail.
‘The discomfort with Judith’s use of violence is common among Christians in the modern West but does not go back earlier than about 1600. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Judith was assimilated in Christian art as a type of the praying Virgin or the church or as a figure who tramples Satan and harrows Hell. She was sometimes grouped with other violent women, such as Jael and even Queen Tomyris, who beheaded Cyrus the Great, but Judith’s depiction does not reflect any anxiety or ambivalence. The figure of Judith herself remained removed and unreal, separated from real sexual images and thus protected. The new sculptures and paintings that appear in about 1600, however, differ significantly. Violent depictions of the decapitation were created, especially that by Caravaggio, and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer. Contemporary with Caravaggio’s violent Judith is a painting by Christofano Allori which depicts Holofernes in the likeness of the artist himself.’ [x]