Judith in Art – La Betulia Liberata

26 Jun

It seems that nearly every artist who is proficient has at some point or other crossed paths with Judith.

Judith is an Apocryphal book which can be found in the Catholic Bible, and tells the story of a group of poor citizens being starved out of their impenetrable walled fortress by an evil opposing army. A modest widow, Judith, decides to do something about it. She dresses up in her finest garments, walks into the enemy camp, asks the evil leader Holofernes to party all night, gets the him drunk, and cuts off his head. She then returns home. When the enemy discover Holofernes is dead, they think the enemy is upon them, and they rout themselves during the night.

Mozart set an Oratorio called “La Betulia Liberata” to music, which focuses on the despair of the people of the city, until Judith steps forward to ease their pain. All of the stuff at the enemy camp and the beheading takes place off stage. I think the piece is utterly fantastic, and perhaps just as good as “Mitridate”, being in the Da Capo Opera style. It is very likely the piece was never heard until the 20th century. The play was by the famous Metastasio, and it has numerous exciting songs, and is one of the only works Mozart ever set in a minor key — the only change to major comes when the enemy is destroyed!

Many great artists are inspired by Judith. Vivaldi set a different Oratorio text, “Juditha Triumphans”, about Judith’s visit to the camp, with some spectacular music. Painters and sculptors from across the centuries have found the subject fit to paint. Interestingly enough, even authors find inspiration from Judith. You can see themes from this story cross into modern art in places such as The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkein, a devoted Catholic, was inspired by Judith for writing of his own siege of a walled city (in his Helm’s Deep) and the amusing idea of the enemy routing itself (when the monsters of Cirith Ungol kill each other over Frodo’s chainmail, and mistake Sam for a giant.)

I would like to share some artistic works of Judith from throughout history. As I said, nearly every great artist has chosen Judith as a subject, so these are just a few selections:

Cranach depicts Judith in his famous gown – the only gown any of his beauties ever seem to appear in, if you look at his body of work.

Judith Victorious by Cranach

Modern artist, Keith Thompson was influenced by Cranach’s composition.

Judith by Keith Thompson

Caravaggio, painter and Street Fighter, no stranger to gore or violence, painted one of the most famous Judith scenes:

Judith by Caravaggio

Judith can be found wearing centuries worth of styles, because every artist seems to dress her in contemporary garments or a contemporary view of Historical Garments. Here she is dressed in a greek Chiton:

Judith by Mantegna

Veronese is one of the only artists to depict Judith’s servant as a black woman.

Judith by Veronese

In this Medieval illustration, everyone looks divinely placid:

Judith by Meckenem

Sneaky Judith:

Judith by Fontana

Artemesia Gentileschi loved painting the Judith scene. Some people speculate that poor Artemesia was raped while young, and always depicted herself in the painting as Judith and her abuser as Holofernes.

Judith by Gentileschi 1

She also preferred this composition:

Judith by Gentileschi 2

Here is a very old depiction of Judith:

Ye Olde Judith, kicking butt (If you know the artist, please let me know!)

While Judith can be found dressed in nearly every style that existed in Europe, it is interesting to note that she is never dressed appropriately as a Jewish Woman or a Middle Eastern woman.

Judith by Galizia

I love Tintoretto, and here he goes again, giving us a scene where the action is not quite clear until closer observation. Can you spot Holofernes’ head?

Judith by Tintoretto

Here’s a cool shot of Judith that I like:

Judith by Valintin Boulagne

And Finally, the Judith image that seems most in synch with Mozart’s “La Betulia Liberata” in my mind, because it depicts the climax of the opera, where Judith pulls the severed head from the bag, describing in gory detail how difficult it is to sever a spinal column. Ah, yes, only in opera.

Judith Again (If you know the artist, please let me know!)

I hope you enjoyed these Judith images!

Finally, here is the first photograph I did for “La Betulia Liberata”. I’m not so sure if I like this final version, and I am seriously considering trying to photograph it again to see if I can get an image that works better for me. What do you guys think?

La Betulia Liberata by Tyson Vick.

If you get a chance, check out a great La Betulia Liberata recording by Maag, with the glorious Gloria Banditelli (an amazing rich contralto) as Judith and a cast of passionate and dramatically involved singers with perfectly cast, and immensely talented voices. It is available in The Complete Works of Mozart box Set, where I got it, and is a highly recommendable box set (with its only real disappointments being “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail” and “La Finta Giardinera”).

The Maag “La Betulia Liberata” is much better than the Hager one on the Mozart Edition, which is technically sung more accurately, particularly by the tenor Peter Schreier, but is dry and passionless by comparison, and besides Schreier, none of the singers quite suit the music so well as the Maag counterparts.

5 Responses to “Judith in Art – La Betulia Liberata”

  1. judith2you January 20, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this insightful look at Judith. I enjoyed it so much that I added it to my narcissistic blog (www.judith2you.wordpress.com) on November 22. My apologies for not informing you sooner – I was having too much fun reading! Judith (the other one)

    • tysonvick January 21, 2012 at 2:44 am #

      Hi Judith! I am very interested in your blog because there are so many pictures of Judith I have never seen before! I always say that any artist who wants to test their mettle should illustrates Judith!

      I will have some more images from La Betulia Liberata at some point, too. So I hope you will come back and visit when that happens!

  2. Steven Tigner April 14, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    Thanks for the illuminating “Judith in Art – La Betulia Liberata”
    The source of the “Judith Holofernes” woodcut is the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493


  1. November 25, 2013 | The Weekly Blab - November 25, 2013

    […] For you music, art, and history lovers, there are two major operas related to the story of Chanukkah.  The better known is George Frideric Handel’s orotario Judas Maccabaeus (1746, written to celebrate the Duke of Cumberland’s victory in the Battle of Culloden—the last major battle fought on British soil), which tells the story of the Maccabees.  More obscure is Antonio Vivaldi’s orotario Juditha Triumphans (“Judith Triumphant”, written in 1716 to celebrate the victory of Venice over the Turks in the siege of Corfu).  Judith was a Jewish widow who pleads for mercy to the invading Assyrian general Holofernes.  He falls in love with her and she indulges him.  He falls asleep after a celebration banquet, whereupon she kills him and cuts off his head.  When she exits from his tent with his severed head, the Assyrian troops fled in terror, and her village, Bethulia, is saved.  Judith and Holofernes’ beheading appears in many major artworks, a good review of which can be found here. […]

  2. The Weekly Blab - December 2, 2013

    […] to it in a good review of paintings on the subject of Judith beheading Holofernes, which appeared here.  The review, ironically called “One Delightful Day” is by Tyson Vick and includes two […]

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