Judith is the main character of the book in the Old Testament that bears her name. The text describes how she saved Israel from destruction by beheading the sleeping Assyrian general, Holofernes. In Christian tradition, Judith is celebrated for her bravery, faith and virtue.
The story begins with the Assyrian king sending his general, Holofernes, to conquer the land of Judah. Holofernes then laid siege to the city of Bethulia. The citizens of Bethulia decided to surrender if no aid arrived within five days.
However, a beautiful widow named Judith lived in Bethulia. She led a secluded life of prayer and fasting. When she learned about the city’s plan to surrender, she advised the city’s officials to remain patient and to ask God for mercy.
Judith reassured them that she had a plan to save the day. She went to her rooftop, put ashes on her head as a sign of penance, and prayed to God for help. She then put on her finest clothes and went with her maid to the Assyrian camp.
When Holofernes saw Judith, he was impressed by her and allowed her to come and go as she pleased. Four days later, after a great banquet, Holofernes became drunk and fell asleep in his tent. Judith waited until everyone had left, grabbed his sword, and cut off his head.
Carrying his head in a satchel, she left the camp with her maid and returned to Bethulia. The people were overjoyed to see Judith return, and she showed them Holofernes’ head, thanking God for his mercy and protection.
The next day, the citizens hung Holofernes’ head on the city walls, and they went to attack the Assyrian camp. When the Assyrians discovered the headless body of their general, they were filled with terror and fled. The people then celebrated the victory in song and dance.
This stained glass window depicting Judith was produced by Hardman & Co. in 1901 and is found in the Blessed Sacrament chapel of St Antony of Padua, Forest Gate. It shows Judith, dressed in her finery, holding the sword with which she killed Holofernes – and his head in her hand.
Judith is described in the book as a brave, intelligent and beautiful woman. As a result, from the time of the Early Church onwards, she was held up as an example of the virtues of fortitude and chastity. As a faithful woman who helped to bring salvation, she was also considered a predecessor of the Virgin Mary.
For a variety of reasons, many scholars think that the story of Judith is probably an historical novel, rather than straightforward history. A modern-day equivalent would be Les Misérables, a work of fiction that is based on real events.
See the full image:
Hardman & Co. / Judith defeats Holofernes / Stained glass / 1901
Where to find this work of art
St Antony of Padua, Forest Gate
Read the relevant passage
On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: The story of her dramatic victory is celebrated in The Song of Judith.
- From the New Testament: The Virgin Mary was another widow who played a key role in the history of Israel, with Christ appointing her the mother of all Christians while dying on the cross.
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