In the Uffizi is Botticelli’s Judith. It is a small picture and therefore easily overlooked.
This was a favorite subject of all the artists, and Judiths are found in every gallery. Ruskin says : “There is only one true to the legend, and that is Botticelli’s.”
The story can be found in full in the Book of Judith, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible.
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Assyria, started out to conquer his world. He sent his mighty captain, Holofernes, to conquer Judea. They encamped before the city of Bethulia, close to the fountains, cutting off the water supply of the city.
After thirty-four days the water in the cis-terns was exhausted, men, women and children fainted for thirst, and fell down in the streets of the city, and there was no longer any strength in them. Then the people came to the rulers, and demanded that they should give the city over to Holofernes, for they said, “It is better we should be slaves to him than die of thirst.”
Ozias, the governor, said, “Wait yet five days and if help does not come, I will do as you demand.”
When Judith, the widow of Manasses, heard this she sent for the governor and the two princes, and after upbraiding them for their lack of faith in the God of their fathers, said: “Ye shall stand this night in the gate, and I will go forth with my waiting woman, and within the days that ye have promised to deliver the city to our enemies, the Lord will visit Israel by my hand.”
Judith went to her house, took off the garments of her widowhood, put on her most beautiful apparel, and all her ornaments of gold, and with her maid started for the Assyrian camp. When they reached the gate of the city they found Ozias and the two princes. They wondered at her beauty, and said, “The God of our fathers give thee favor to accomplish thy purpose.”
The first watch of the Assyrians met her and asked, “Of what people art thou? And whither goest thou?” And she said, “I am a woman of the Hebrews, and am fled from them, for they shall be given you to be consumed, and I am coming before Holofernes, and I will show him a way whereby he shall go and win all the hill country, without losing the body, or life, of any one of his men.” Her words and her wonderful beauty conquered the guards, and they said, “We will lead you to our lord, and when you come into his presence, do not be afraid, tell him your story, and he will entreat you well.” They made up a company of a hundred men to go with Judith and her maid to the tent of Holofernes. As she walked through the camp, the soldiers gathered in crowds to gaze upon her, marveling at her beauty.
Holofernes was resting on his couch, under a canopy woven with purple and gold, and emeralds, and precious stones. When he was told of the coming of this woman, he came out of his tent, with silver lamps carried before him. He with the others marveled at her great beauty. He welcomed her, and assured her that no harm should come to any who served his Lord Nebuchadnezzar.
Then Judith made him a speech, so full of subtle flattery that Holofernes, from that moment her captive, said, “There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, both for beauty of face and wisdom of word.” She staid three days in the camp, going out each night by permission of Holofernes to pray.
The fourth day he made a great feast, and invited her. She ate and drank what her maid had prepared. Holofernes drank more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born. When the evening came the weary servants were dismissed, for the feast had been long, and only Judith remained in the tent. Holofernes lay on his bed in a drunken sleep. Judith took his sword, took hold of his long hair, and said, “Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day,” and she smote him upon his neck with all her might and she took away his head from him, and tumbled his body down from the bed, pulled the canopy down upon it, and went forth, and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who put it in the bag in which she carried her meat. So the two went, according to their custom, unto prayer.
After they passed the camp, they hastened to their own city. Judith cried to the watch-man, “Open, open now the gate. God, even our God, is with us, to show his power yet in the land.”
And when the men of the city heard her voice they made haste to go down. They made a fire for a light and she cried with a loud voice, “Praise, praise God, praise God I say, for He hath not taken away His mercy from the house of Israel, but hath destroyed our enemies by mine hand this night.” So she took the head out of the bag and showed it, and said unto them, “Behold the head of Holofernes; the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman.”
The picture shows Judith and her maid well up the hill toward Bethulia. Below in the valley is the camp of the Assyrians.
Ruskin says, “The triumph of Miriam over a fallen host, the fire of exulting mortal life in an immortal hour, the purity and severity of a guardian angel all are here.”
( Originally Published 1912 )
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