The Song of Judith is a thanksgiving hymn that tells the story of one woman’s courage in the face of the enemy. It forms most of the last chapter of the Old Testament book of Judith.
The book tells the story of Judith, a brave and beautiful woman who saved Israel from destruction by assassinating Holofernes, the general of the invading Assyrian army. Judith infiltrated the enemy camp, pretended to seduce him – and then beheaded him while he slept. This caused mass panic among the Assyrians and led to their downfall.
Judith then led the people in celebration of the victory, with much singing and dancing. Together, they sang a hymn of thanksgiving to God. The song credits God for the success of her mission and celebrates Judith’s bravery. It echoes the Song of Moses, the hymn that Israel sang after the Crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1-21).
The story of Judith’s courage – and how she intervened to save Israel – is told in detail in the previous fifteen chapters of the book. The song summarises the story, focusing on key elements.
Firstly, it describes the threat posed by the vast Assyrian army to the people of Israel. Secondly, it describes how Assyria was defeated by the brave intervention of Judith. Thirdly, it describes how Judith made herself attractive so that she could trick Holofernes into entertaining her. And fourthly, it praises God for his active role in his creation.
This stained glass scene of the Song of Judith is from the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich. It belongs to the ‘Queen’s Window’ in the North Transept. The window also contains images of Queen Esther and the Queen of Sheba, as well as the Virgin Mary. The Gothic Revival stained glass is by the Hardman & Powell studio and dates to the turn of the 20th century.
In a comic touch, in her left hand Judith is still clutching the severed head of Holofernes as she leads the celebrations. In her right hand, she wields the sword with which she beheaded him. As described in the song, she is attractively dressed in her best clothes. To the left and right, the people raise their hands in praise of God as they dance for joy.
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Where to find this work of art
Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Norwich
Read the relevant passage