The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes and the Return of Judith by Alessandro Botticelli

The Discovery of the Body of Holofernes by Botticelli (c.1470-1472)
The Return of Judith by Botticelli (c. 1470-1472)


Two for the price of one today.  Actually they were originally two panels of the same diptych, which had a carved and gilded walnut frame but which has since been lost.  These two tempera on wood panels can now be found as separate items in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  There is, as you would expect, a story connecting the two works of art.  For those who are slightly squeamish and don’t like the sight of blood, I apologise !

Both of today’s paintings are by Alessandro Botticelli and both refer to an Old Testament story from the Book of Judith (13:10).  It is very much like the story of David and Goliath, in which the underdog triumphs against great odds, a sort of virtue conquering vice.  Holofernes was the Assyrian general whose army was laying siege to the Jewish settlement of Bethulia. Under intense pressure from the enemy, some of the residents voiced their opinion that they should surrender.  However a rich widow, Judith, conceived a plan which would save her people.  One night, dressed in her finest clothes and looking her most alluring she passed through the town gates and with her maid and walked across the valley to the camp of her town’s oppressor, Holofernes.  She gained an audience with him by telling his guards that she would provide them with a route which would enable them to enter Bethulia.

Judith told Holofernes that she had deserted Bethulia and had been sent by God saying that her people had turned away from religion and therefore deserved to be destroyed and she would aid Holofornes in his battle.  Holofornes was pleased with this and said that Judith could remain in his camp and would be allowed to leave each evening with her maid, Abra, so as to pray.  He was mesmerised by Judith’s beauty.  On the fourth night Holofernes held a banquet for his commanders and Judith dressed seductively, went to Holofornes tent.  Holofernes drank excessively and sent all his men away so he could be alone with Judith.  Due to the amount he had drunk, he rapidly lost consciousness.  When he finally fell into a stupor Judith grasped his sword and with two mighty blows decapitated him.  Then she and her maid left the camp as they did each evening on the pretence to pray before returning.

This time, however, they kept walking.  At the gate of Bethulia, she called for entry, showed her trophy, and told the men to mount an attack on the Assyrian camp next morning. They did so, and when the Assyrians ran to Holofernes’s tent to rouse him, they found their leader headless. Horrified, the Assyrians decamped. The Israelites plundered the camp; all the best things of Holofernes were given to Judith, who then passed them to her late husband’s heirs.

So there you have it, the story of Judith and Holofernes.  The paintings, on offer today, are depictions of this tale.  One shows the headless body of the Assyrian leader being found by his servants.  Look at the faces on the servants.  Notice the shock and horror as they gaze down upon the muscled almost naked headless corpse of their leader Holofernes.  Study the musclature of the body.  It is an excellent nude study.  Note the skilful combination of colours and in the use of light to illuminate the clothing as well as the bedsheet on which the body of the dead Holofernes sprawls.

In the other painting, The Return of Judith, she and her maid are seen in flowing robes looking similar to young nymphs that are often found in this era of painting.  We see a jubilant Judith returning home with her maid, Abra, who carries the sack in which is the decapitated head of Holofernes. In one hand Judith has the bloodied sword which she used to kill Holofernes and countering that act of violence she carries in her other hand an olive branch which symbolises peace.  The painting of Judith shows a female heroine and depicts female dominance which is a theme that Botticelli often used in his paintings.  Botticelli has succeeded here in capturing both movement and stillness in a unique balance. Judith is pausing a moment in her striding forward to turn towards the observer, self-assured if not without a touch of melancholy, exactly as if she wished to present herself as the victor.

Although you do not get a sense of the size of the paintings, you may be surprised to know how small they are, measuring only 31cms x 24cms.