Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529), Worskshop

‘Giuditta ebrea’ Judith holding the head of Holofernes
c. 1520
Italy, Florence
tin-glazed terracotta
62 x 25 x 17 cm

The story of Judith, an Old Testament heroine, is described in a deuterocanonical book called the Book of Judith but it was also a part of the Power of Women topos (or Weibermacht), which became popular in medieval and Renaissance art. The story is set at a time when the Jewish people were held captive by the Assyrians and so Judith seduced their general, Holofernes, and decapitated him while he slept. The theme of Judith and Holofernes became particularly popular in Renaissance Italy and was used to symbolize the triumph of humility over pride. Much like Delilah betraying Samson after promising her love to him, however, stories such as Judith and Holofernes, which belonged to the Weibermacht topos, had dual meanings. While symbolising strength in weakness, justice and humility, the stories were not always received with ease. For the church, they acted as reminders that women were evil and manipulative. The topos of Judith and Holofernes demonstrated a medieval vision of the world ‘upside down, [which was] “in violation of every officially sanctioned norm of female behavior that demanded the submission of the female to the male.”’ Still, documentary evidence shows that gender affected the way that the Weibermacht topos were understood and interpreted. Christine de Pizan even challenged the topos, arguing that ‘male writers perpetuated false notions about women.’

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Sam Fogg
Art of the Middle Ages