When her hometown of Bethulia was besieged by Assyrian forces, Judith infiltrated the enemy camp. She gained entry to the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, and when he was drunk after a banquet she seized his sword and cut off his head.
Here she places Holofernes‘ head into a sack held open by her maid. Her gaze is steely and resolute as she turns to look at the viewer, but her cheeks are flushed, her skin shiny with sweat and her fleshy lips glossy. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to avoid the streams of blood gushing from Holofernes’ mutilated neck.
The drama of the composition, the powerful gestures and the use of strong contrasts of light and shade are typical of the Baroque period and particularly reflect the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio, whose paintings Liss must have seen while he was in Rome in the 1620s.
The courage and beauty of the Jewish heroine Judith are celebrated in this painting, which expresses both the sensuality and the gore of her legend. When her hometown of Bethulia was besieged by Assyrian forces, Judith infiltrated the enemy camp. Disarmed by her looks, the soldiers believed her when she offered them assistance. She gained entry to the tent of the Assyrian general Holofernes, and when he was drunk after a banquet she seized his sword and cut off his head.
Liss shows the moment immediately afterwards, with Judith placing Holofernes‘ head into a sack held open by her maid; the white of his upturned right eyeball is just visible. Her gaze is steely and resolute as she turns to look at the viewer, but her cheeks are flushed, her skin shiny with sweat and her fleshy lips glossy. Tendrils of hair in a spiral have escaped from her turban and rest against the smooth flesh of her neck. Judith’s body is partly bare – the exertion has loosened her chemise, revealing her back and shoulders. Holofernes is half-naked, with only his wrinkled bed sheets covering the lower part of his body. These hints of sensuality reflect the intimacy of the murder, which took place when the two were alone at night in the tent: Holofernes believed that Judith was trying to seduce him, not kill him.
It is impossible to avoid the streams of blood, so thick that they catch the light, gushing relentlessly from Holofernes’ mutilated neck, depicted more squarely than Judith’s face. His muscular torso is cast partly in shadow by her body, highlighting the juxtaposition of their brightly lit left arms. His muscles are echoed by the billowing folds of her voluminous sleeves, emphasising the victory of feminine guile over masculine strength.
Their limbs and bodies are positioned so that they create a continuous circle up through the sweeping curve of Judith’s body, through the three heads – Judith’s, the maid’s and Holofernes‘– and down to Holofernes’ bloodied wound, along his right arm and back to Judith. Her thick silk draperies and the creamy texture of her thickly painted turban contrast with the yellow sheen of Holofernes' corpse and the glint of his cold armour at the very bottom of the picture. Contemporary viewers would have known that, according to the Book of Judith, she remained pure and undefiled, the chastity of her conquest making her victory all the more righteous. This composition and the variety of textures enhance the narrative, juxtaposing delight with horror and tricking the viewer just as Judith tricked Holofernes.
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