Judith in Gulabi

15 Sep

I remember the first time I saw Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. It was in my European history class in high school. I was astounded. Should a woman be doing that, I wondered? At the same time, I was intoxicated by her display of female power. In the painting, a woman has seduced a general to help her people, who are besieged by the Assyrians; and she is beheading him. Although Judith grimaces slightly, she and her handmaid seem relatively emotionless as they are going about this brutal task. The general Holofernes, completely drunk, has no time to react, and a cruel spurt of blood ejects from his neck. Judith looks like she’s slicing a large piece of meat. Her cleavage shows, underscoring the power of her sexuality as she exacts revenge and helps to free her people.

I admire Judith’s bravery. And, perhaps more than her display of force, I love the wisdom Judith displays before her people as a “God-fearing woman” (NRSV, Judith 8:31). Her people are perishing of thirst and hunger from the siege, and they angrily suggest their leaders surrender because God has seemingly abandoned them. Their leaders say that if God has not delivered them within five days, they will surrender. But Judith rebukes the leaders for “putting the Lord Almighty to the test” (8:13): “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (8:14). And rather than sitting passively waiting for God’s deliverance, Judith offers herself as an instrument of that deliverance and enters the enemy camp. After seducing Holofernes and getting him drunk, she strikes off his head with his own sword and takes the head back to her people, who display it on their wall.

This great act of heroism and intimidation inspires an attack on the Assyrians. The sweetest bit of revenge of all? “They gave Judith the tent of Holfernes and all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture” (15:11), which she later dedicates to God at the temple. The account of the female celebration that ensues is quite touching. The Israelite women bless Judith and dance to honor her. And Judith leads “the people in the dance . . . bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns” (15:13). Judith sings a thanksgiving hymn that is a song of her personal deliverance and of Israelite triumphalism, ending, not surprisingly, violently: “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever” (16:17). Judith becomes more revered with age, and peace remains among her people for years after her death.

I wish celebrations of female strength were more a part of our religious and secular culture. I was so happy to learn of a group of Indian women, known as the Gulabi (pink) Gang, who have taken redress for various crimes against women and the poor into their own hands, since local officials shirk their duty to the law. The women carry bamboo staffs and use violence to retaliate if they are being bullied or intimidated. And the officials fear them and are changing their behavior. These women are saving their people. And, although I don’t endorse violence, or vigilante justice, I do endorse women taking matters into their own hands when the balance of power and the law are against them and will remain against them unless they do something. Women are more powerful than much popular and religious culture would lead women to believe. Hooray for these women, and hooray for Judith.


13 Responses to “Judith in Gulabi”

  1. jp September 15, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    Hooray for this post!

    • ep September 16, 2010 at 1:13 am #

      Thanks, jp! 🙂

  2. M September 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

    Hi! I’ve been enjoying this blog for awhile, since my friend Jon recommended this site a few weeks ago. As an art historian, I’m especially pleased that you did a post on Gentileschi and “Judith and Holofernes.” Perhaps you are aware of the feminist analysis surrounding this painting? Artemesia Gentileschi was raped by one of the assistants in her father’s studio, and this powerful image of female strength (and likely retaliation, given Gentileschi’s circumstances) has captured the interest of many feminist scholars.

    It’s interesting that although some images of female strength were made in the Renaissance and Baroque periods (15-17th centuries), they did not always remain in the public eye. For example, Donatello also made a sculpture of “Judith and Holofernes,” but this sculpture eventually was removed from the public plaza. I wrote a little bit about this statue and the circumstances on my art history blog: http://albertis-window.blogspot.com/2010/01/loggia-dei-lanzi-and-subjugation.html

    I agree: I wish there were more celebrations (and visual images!) of female strength in the world. Keep up the great posts!

    • ep September 16, 2010 at 1:13 am #

      Hi, M! Thanks for reading the blog. I’m glad you enjoy it. I had forgotten about Artemesia’s rape. That is a very good point. And, I look forward to reading your blog! It looks awesome.

  3. Lan September 16, 2010 at 3:51 am #

    Hello there! Just stumbled across your blog not looking for Judith but on input on the show Sister Wives. I was charmed by the title of your blog and its description. So I hit the home button, and lo and behold the first piece I see is written about Judith! She’s such a bad ass character! I actually did a translation project for my Old English class on the poem; of course the scene I chose to translate was the beheading. There’s a really interesting interpretation by one scholar (can’t remember her name right now…for shame…) that the language describing the killing of Holoferenes is actually a reverse rape! I have to go dig up this article now. I’ll definitely be sticking around; always looking for fellow academics to chat with and follow on the blogosphere. 🙂

  4. ep September 16, 2010 at 4:09 am #

    Lan, I’m so glad you found the blog! That is a fascinating point about the linguistics of the story. If you find the article, would you send it along? Also, I saw that you’re a Renaissance studies gal! I am just beginning my foray into that world. I’m particularly interested in women and works by women (as you could probably guess 🙂 ).

  5. Kate September 16, 2010 at 4:17 pm #


    Except for, I do support vigilante justice is certain circumstances. 🙂

    • ep September 16, 2010 at 10:08 pm #

      🙂 I think you’re right.

  6. Jasanna September 17, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    I’ve never heard of Judith. I enjoyed the backstory!


  7. ep September 18, 2010 at 1:26 am #

    Thanks, Jasanna! I like your wedding gown sketches on your etsy page. 🙂

  8. EmilyCC September 21, 2010 at 7:15 pm #

    Fabulous post! I never noticed that Judith led a dance to celebrate her victory. It reminds me of the dance Miriam led after Moses led the people through the Red Sea in Exodus 15:20. I can’t help but wonder if these dances are more than the dancing we think of today. Might they be some sort of religious rituals that women were allowed to lead?

    And, I’m loving the tie-in you’ve done with Judith’s story and the Gulabi Gang–would that we see that sort of thinking in Sunday School 🙂

  9. ep September 21, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    Thanks, Emily! I love the idea of this dance being a ritual, and I think that absolutely fits with the temple processional that follows. Love it!


  1. Faith-Promoting Rumor » Scholaristas…Go Read It! - September 24, 2010

    […] Judith in Gulabi […]

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