Judith and Salome

08 Jan

Before I go any further with the portraits of Judith, we need to get one thing straight:  how to tell the difference between virtuous, heroic Judith and her slutty, godless twin Salome.

There actually are important cues that help to distinguish one from the other.   However, some artists have elected to muddle these cues (just to be mean, I suppose) and it becomes difficult to tell who is who.  In addition, many of the artists who have portrayed Judith have also painted Salome, which adds to the chance of confusion.   In fact, of about 150 individual artists of Judith I catalogued, over one-quarter had a also painted Salome.  Probably not a complete list but:

Bakst, Baskin, Biscaino, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Catena, Clarke, Constant, Corinth, Cranach Elder, dal Sole, del Cairo, Domenichino, Elsheimer, Ficherelli, Gentileshi, Ghirlandaio, Gramatica, Guerchino, Il Pordenone, Klimt, Klinger, Maratta, Palma il Vecchio, Piazzetta, Preti, Regnault, Rembrandt, Reni, Romanino, Rubens, Serov, Solimena, Spada, Stanzione

And yes.  There will be a quiz later.

What is the difference?  First to the story.

  • Judith:  Respected widow of Bethulia; manipulated her way into enemy camp with her maid, has dinner with Holofernes, goes to his tent when he is drunk, uses his own sword to decapitate him herself, takes the head back to Bethulia in a bag and saves the town.
  • Salome:  Step-daughter of Herod, wants to please her mother who was insulted by John the Baptist, dances at dinner for Herod, asks for head of John the Baptist, has an executioner decapitate him, she takes the head to her mother on a platter and fulfills her mother’s revenge.
Consequently, in the artistic imagery:
  • Judith:  Usually looks respectful; often accompanied by her maid; has Holofernes’ sword in her hand;  decapitates victim herself;  the head is in a bag.
  • Salome:  Usually looks seductive; sometimes accompanied by a male executioner; has no sword in her hand;  does not decapitate victim herself;  the head is on a plate.

From here it gets confusing.  Because sometimes Judith looks seductive, sometimes Salome has a maid but does not always have an executioner, Judith does not always have a sword or a bag, sometimes Holofernes is on a plate.

And then artists sometimes confuse Judith and Salome on purpose (what demons).   For instance, there is Francesco Maffei who gives us (a) no maid or executioner, (b) a sword and a plate, but (c) no conclusive name.    Who the hell is this supposed to be?

Francesco Maffei, “Judith” or “Salome,” c. 1650-60, Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza, Faenza, Italy

(deep sigh) As I have made abundantly clear, I am not the academic in this area  (even if I am an academic in another area which is not the subject of this blog).   So I respectfully defer to  Erwin Panofsky for those who need academic verification.

For the rest of us, follow this equation:

  • Slut with severed head on a plate and no sword = Salome
  • Semi-slut with a severed head and a sword = Judith
For further reading if you really need it:
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance.  New York: Harper & Row, 1972. (reprint of 1939 edition)
Marina Warner, Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form. University of California Press, 2001.

Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Cacciatore


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3 responses to “Judith and Salome

  1. Mo

    February 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I would love to talk with you if at all possible. I am an art history graduate student. I am working on my Master Thesis on Henry O. Tanner and Salome. There isn’t much research on Salome and Tanner so I am reaching out where ever I can in hopes of finishing my thesis. Please call me at your leisure 202 290-7409

    • judith2you

      February 7, 2012 at 12:06 pm

      I would be happy to speak with you – assuming you read my disclaimer about my lack of academic credentials in art. However, I do have credentials in research and know the pain of theses.

  2. ugagua

    June 16, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Actually, Panofsky solves the conundrum. There is a “type” Judith with plate, but not a single example of Salome with sword. Hence this has to be Judith.


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