Skip to main content

Giorgio Vasari, Italian, 1511–1574; Judith and Holofernes, c.1554; oil on panel; 42 1/2 x 31 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund and funds given in honor of Betty Greenfield Grossman 2:1982

Who is She?

The biblical heroine Judith, a beautiful widow from the town of Bethulia (likely present-day northern West Bank), came to the rescue when General Holofernes and the Assyrian army laid siege to her city. Boldly infiltrating the Assyrian camp, Judith dined with Holofernes and, once he was drunk, beheaded him with the help of her maid, Abra. Judith was a shrewd strategist who, knowing that her beauty could be an effective tool to charm her opponent, outsmarted the Assyrian general and saved her people.

Giorgio Vasari, Italian, 1511–1574; Judith and Holofernes(detail), c.1554; oil on panel; 42 1/2 x 31 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund and funds given in honor of Betty Greenfield Grossman 2:1982

The Artist

Giorgio Vasari was both a celebrated writer and a renowned painter and architect. His most famous publication, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, chronicled the great talents of the Italian Renaissance and championed the Florentine emphasis on drawing the body as a means of mastering three-dimensional form.

Mannerist artists like Vasari chose to emphasize their concept of beauty rather than pictorial realism. They often exaggerated musculature and even distorted anatomy in order to represent their idea of a physical ideal. Mannerist works are often full of figures in space of indeterminate size and depth.

The Composition

Vasari depicted the heroine from behind. This perspective allowed him to paint the musculature of Judith’s back and arm, and to employ dramatic foreshortening for the body of the sleeping general. Vasari used a pose copied from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, portraying Judith as a physically powerful woman, a visible indication of her inner courage.

Giorgio Vasari, Italian, 1511–1574; Judith and Holofernes(detail), c.1554; oil on panel; 42 1/2 x 31 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund and funds given in honor of Betty Greenfield Grossman 2:1982

The Power of Women

In this scene, Judith is unmistakably depicted as a powerful woman. The glossy fabric, along with the jewels and adornments of her dress, give Judith a sense of elegance and refinement in addition to power. Over time many different artists have portrayed Judith in a range of ways. We see some overtly triumphant Judiths, as in Varsari’s painting here, but we also see Judith depicted as she escapes from the enemy camp, not really masculinized or aggressive, as in the later painting, Judith Displaying the Head of Holofernes (below) by Luca Giordano, also in the Museum’s collection.

Luca Giordano, Italian, 1634-1705; Judith Displaying the Head of Holofernes, 1703-1704; oil on canvas; 30 1/2 x 40 1/2 in.; Museum purchase 60:1965

Scroll back to top