Let’s talk about decapitation for a minute. Did I draw you in with that hook? “Sure! Let’s talk about decapitation!” I’m positive that’s what you said.
Throughout Western art history, there are many topics and stories that we see repeated time and time again by different artists, because they really capture the imagination, tell a good story, or connect with people emotionally. One such story is Judith slaying Holofernes from the Christian Bible. This story is represented in more than 114 paintings and sculptures if you can believe it.
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The Story: To sum it up, Holofernes, an Assyrian general and our dastardly villain, was tasked by the king to destroy Judith’s hometown, the city of Bethulia. Judith, a beautiful widow, charms and befriends Holofernes and is allowed into Holofernes’ tent because of his desire for her. After he gets drunk and passes out, she chops of his head and carries it away in a basket back to Bethulia to prove to her neighbors that the problem is taken care of. Bam!
These two representations of the story are remarkably similar, but have many interesting differences. One of my most favorite lessons to have students compare and contrast the two works. It is a great lesson in looking closely. The longer you can keep a student looking and thinking, the more they will get out of it. Have your students notice the differences and similarities between the colors, the lighting, the postures and expressions of the people, the actions, the lines, the emotions, and more.
Click here to download a free PowerPoint of this activity!
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I always follow up the compare and contrast activity with a thought-provoking question: “Which of these paintings was painted by a woman, and which was painted by a man?
Think about it. What do you the correct answer is? How can you tell one was painted by a woman and one a man?
The biggest difference to add to this discussion is the way the women were painted. In the first one, the woman is strong and determined. She’s got her knee on the bed, and she is really going for it. In the second, the woman is delicate. She has a look of disgust and is trying to keep her distance from the action by pushing herself back. Her expression is timid and worried. I’ve let this discussion with countless groups of students–high-schoolers, college students, and adults. Answers and reasons always vary, and there is always an interesting discussion.
Even you get the answer “wrong,” it still is an interesting way to explore gender and stereotypes as well as learn about the lives of artists.
Gentileschi, a rare woman painter from the past, had a very tumultuous life which led to her painting strong and powerful woman or women being oppressed or exposed. Although we tend to connect a woman’s life to her painting more than we do with men painters (I’ve got a post about the lives of the artists coming up in a few weeks), it’s hard to resist seeing the connection here. As a teenager, she was raped by a friend of her father. At the time, the woman was usually seen at the one to blame. She had to go on trial and ended up having to marry the same man who raped her. You can read about her life in the awesome biographical novel, The Passion of Artemisia** by Susan Vreeland. I highly recommend this book. I read it years ago and loved it. **that’s an affiliate link
You can see more of her artwork at Artemisia-Gentileschi.com.
Art Learning Activities for Judith Beheading Holofernes
- Compare and contrast the two works. After noticing all the similarities and differences, ask your student which painting was painted by a man and which a woman, and how can they tell?
- Study Baroque art to better understand the characteristics of these two works. Use my Baroque lesson that includes this activity along with other compare/contrast activities to teach the main characteristics of Baroque. Buy the lesson here or join the Resource Library to get the lesson materials.
- Read my post about Exploring Narrative in Art for more activities to support connect with stories in art.
- Check out other representations of the story (below) and talk about which paintings depict the story more effectively and what choices artists makes to tell stories.
- Watch the Khan Academy Smarthistory about Gentileschi’s version of this painting.
- The following worksheets from my $5 Printable Art Appreciation Worksheets Bundle work well with these artworks: 4 Steps of Art Criticism*, Compare and Contrast*, Twitter Perspectives*, Write a Letter*, Formal Analysis–Elements of Art, Charlotte Mason Picture Study, Write a Haiku*, and “I am” Character Poem. The ones marked with a * are also available in my free worksheets bundle for e-mail subscribers.
Alright, I was going to include a lot more representations of Judith Beheading Holofernes, but I don’t want this page to take 4 years to load. For more depictions, I’ve got three great links with tons more images: 1. see this Wikipedia page, 2.also check out the blog, judith2u, for LOTS of Judith depictions from the past and present, and 3. go to this page, Stories in Art, and under “search by story,” find and choose “Judith & Holofernes.”
This post was originally published on October 27, 2014.
Click here to download a free PowerPoint of this activity!
 “Judith beheading Holofernes.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 10 August 2014. Web. 8 Oct. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_beheading_Holofernes>.
Thanks again, Wikipedia. If you use Wikipedia regularly, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Wikimedia Foundation. It it such an amazing and free resource, especially with all of the high quality art images they store on the site.
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