First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation

Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the January/February 2013 issue of BAR

Read Hershel Shanks’s First Person column as it originally appeared in BAR, January/February 2013. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in January 2013.—Ed.

To convey the meaning of Scripture, we commonly resort to words. That is how we explicate the text—with words. That’s also the case with those nonbiblical books denominated apocrypha, as in the Book of Judith, the subject of this column.

But the meaning and interpretation of the text can be conveyed also through art. We have customarily used art in this magazine simply to illustrate the words that convey the meaning. In this instance, however, the art is the primary focus—a portrait of Judith by the great early-20th-century artist Gustav Klimt.

Until the 20th century, most artists sought to portray their subjects realistically. The picture still had emotional meaning, but that meaning was conveyed by a painting that comported with outward reality.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt; oil on canvas (1901). Image: Erich Lessing

That changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It may have had something to do with the invention of photography. It was no longer difficult to get a visual likeness of reality. Photographs were available for that purpose. Artists were now freed to express inner emotions in nonrepresentational or rather nonphotographic ways. As the famous impressionist painter Henri Matisse put it, “The invention of photography released painting from any need to copy nature,” allowing the artist to “present emotion as directly as possible.”

I learned about this from a very difficult book titled The Age of Insight1 (which I cannot claim to understand) by my old friend Eric Kandel, a neuropsychiatrist and Nobel laureate awarded for his path-breaking study of human memory as reflected in the neurons of snails.

The Book of Judith is the story of a widow who lured the enemy general into a drunken stupor and then cut off his head. The background to the story is thisa: The Assyrian ruler sends his leading general, Holofernes, to take revenge on the Jews because of their refusal to come to his aid in an earlier conflict. The Jews are not the only ones; for this same reason, Holofernes has already devastated a slew of other nations to the east. The Jews, in desperation, are on the verge of proposing a compromise: If their God does not help them in five days, they will surrender.

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Enter Judith, a wealthy, wise, religious, very beautiful young widow. She is appalled at the suggestion of this proposed compromise. She chides the Jewish leaders for trying to force God’s hand by setting a time limit for him to act. God, she insists, cannot be threatened or cajoled. Judith has her own plan:

She exchanges her widow’s weeds for expensive clothes and, with her trusted maid, leaves for Holofernes’s tent. Literally dressed to kill, she is intercepted by Holofernes’s honor guard. Struck by her beauty, the soldiers accompany her to Holofernes’s tent, where she shamelessly flatters Holofernes: “We have heard how wise and clever you are. You are known throughout the world as the man of ability unrivaled in the whole empire, of powerful intelligence and amazing skills in the art of war” (Judith 11:8).

For three days she remains. Shortly before the morning watch each day, Judith goes down to a nearby spring to bathe and pray. On the fourth day Holofernes prepares a banquet for her, but, as the text notes, “[He] did not invite any of the army officers … When Judith came in and took her place, Holofernes was beside himself with desire for her. He shook with passion and was filled with an ardent longing to possess her; indeed he had been looking for an opportunity to seduce her ever since he first set eyes on her” (Judith 12:10, 16).

Alas, Holofernes drank so much that he passed out. The text says he “drank a great deal of wine, more, indeed, than he had ever drunk on any single day since he was born” (Judith 12:20). He lay “sprawled on his bed, dead drunk” (Judith 13:2). Judith then takes Holofernes’s sword and cuts off his head at the neck.

Did they have sex before Holofernes passed out? The text says he wanted to “seduce” her, but it is clear that she remained pure. Kandel, too, uses the word “seduce,” but it is not quite clear what he means. Speculation has been rife.

Here we present Gustav Klimt’s interpretation—his portrait of Judith after she has decapitated Holofernes (above).

Interested in Biblical art? The Biblical Archaeology Society published over twenty years of Bible Review, a magazine that covered both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, illuminating the text with the latest insights of modern Biblical research. A nondenominational magazine, BR aired a wide range of issues and viewpoints. Each magazine was beautifully illustrated with masterful artwork and scenes from the Bible lands. Every article ever printed in BR is available in Bible Review: The Archive.

Kandel describes the painting as “an extreme interpretation of the pious widow, depicting her as a symbol of the devastating power of the female erotic urge.” She is “barely clothed.” She is “fresh from the seduction and slaying of Holofernes … Her hair is a dark sky between the golden branches of Assyrian trees, fertility symbols that represent her eroticism.” She confronts the viewer with “half-closed eyes in what appears to be a reverie of orgasmic rapture.” Holofernes’s decapitation is suggested by the gold neck choker Judith wears, rendered in the same gilded style as the background.

You may think that Holofernes is missing from the painting. Look again—on the lower right corner of the painting at the level of Judith’s navel. But only a portion of his head is depicted by the artist. Judith’s hand rests on Holofernes’s severed head.

Kandel notes the “latent violence of Holofernes’s decapitated head, as well as Judith’s own sadistic gaze and upturned lip.” This, Kandel asserts, contrasts with the painting’s “soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning.” The painting as a whole “activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.”

Is Klimt saying that Judith allowed Holofernes to satisfy himself? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Perhaps Klimt is only portraying the powerful force of Judith’s eroticism (and, at the same time her contempt for Holofernes). Perhaps Klimt is portraying with his brush this extreme combination of eroticism and contempt that ultimately sent Holofernes into a drunken stupor.

Or perhaps part of the painting’s power is that either interpretation is possible. One thing is clear: Klimt’s interpretation of the story is neither simple nor straightforward.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Lucas Cranach the Elder; oil on wood (1530). Image: Erich Lessing

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori; oil on canvas (1620). Image: Scala/Art Resource, NY

What a contrast to two other famous portraits of Judith (above): the 16th-century painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the 17th-century painting by Cristofano Allori. Perhaps the complexity and power of Klimt’s painting is apparent only in light of such comparisons.

“First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation” by Hershel Shanks originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2013. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on January 18, 2013.



1. Random House, 2012.

a. For more details, see Carey A. Moore, “Judith: The Case of the Pious Killer” (Bible Review 06:01) or, better yet, read the Book of Judith, included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles.


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  • JERRY says

    The depiction may be of Holofernes nemesis Judith, but the face is indubitably the face of Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose portrait was the object of a trial to retrieve it after being looted by the Nazis and sold to the Austrian State Gallery. According to the will of Mrs. Bloch-Bauer’s husband, all properties were to go to nephews and neices. One of the older survivors of the family, Maria Altman, sued for possession of a pprtrait painting Adele Bloch-Bauer and won. The face on this portrait and the face of Judith is the same face. The story of the retrieval of the painting is retold in the recent film, “Woman in Gold.”

    Jerry Blaz

  • Amy says

    I thought your publication was Biblical Archeology Review. Even the title of the article implies that the Bible is being interpreted somehow. “First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation”

    The Apocrypha is not the Bible.

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