Life & Culture

Judith the Chanukah heroine

Visit the National Gallery for the Artemisia Gentileschi.exhibition and you'll see several paintings of Judith, the biblical figure long associated with the festival of Chanukah


While the National Gallery has for many years provided the stately setting for London Jewry’s Chanukah celebrations in Trafalgar Square, Covid-19 has sadly put paid to that festivity this month. Nevertheless there’s currently a timely and eye-catching alternative event with some intriguing Chanukah connections to be discovered in the gallery itself.

It’s an exhibition devoted to the accomplished 17th century Baroque feminist artist Artemisia Gentileschi.

Having suffered personal trauma early in life — she was raped by another artist and tortured during his trial — Gentileschi expressed her rage against a largely male-dominated world by painting strong women, especially those from the Bible such as Esther in the court of Ahasuerus, Yael dispatching the Canaanite commander Sisera, and, above all, Judith slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes.

Her graphic representations of that deed make for compulsive viewing. Unlike Botticelli, Giorgione, Titian, and others before her, Gentileschi portrays it as an act of retribution, as villainy vanquished by virtue.

Indeed her depiction of the event surpasses that of Caravaggio in sheer drama. She was hooked by the story, painting the subject half a dozen times in her career.

Although she’s unlikely to have been familiar with Jewish folklore, both came to share an abiding fascination with Judith as an icon of womanhood, an eshet chayil, no less than as a champion of her people.

Judith was to become a Chanukah symbol, notwithstanding that her exploit has no connection whatever with the Books of the Maccabees, nor is it to be found in any of our recognised sources in Bible, Talmud or early rabbinic literature. Scholars know the tale only from the second century BCE Greek Septuagint as well as the later Latin Vulgate.

The narrative is set in the Jewish city of Bethulia besieged by, and ready to surrender to, the armies of Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar, led by Holofernes. Judith, a widow as unsurprisingly beautiful as she is pious, courageous, wealthy and wise, rebukes its leaders for their cowardice.

She prays, then decks herself out in her finery, packs food and wine, crosses into the enemy camp with her maid, and beguiles Holofernes with predictions of imminent victory.

Rendered drunk and immobile by the celebratory meal she’s fed him, the commander is decapitated by Judith with his own broadsword, the women escape home with his severed head in a bag and the leaderless Assyrians flee.

It’s most likely that, like the legends of much of humanity, the story was transmitted by word of mouth for more than a thousand years from father to son, certainly from mother to daughter, so that when this narrative finally emerges in midrashic manuscripts from about the 11th century onwards, there’s a host of variations.

Some of these have Judith reverting, almost inevitably, to her younger self as a captivating maiden. Her skills in repelling the general’s unwanted postprandial advances are repeatedly applauded.

Jerusalem often displaces Bethulia, a city no one’s heard of anyway. Nebuchadnezzar, an unidentified Assyrian monarch and clearly not the Babylonian conqueror in 586 BCE of the Kingdom of Judah, is frequently and conveniently conflated with Holofernes.

Above all, the apparent Assyrian Empire context is somehow shuffled in most readings from the seventh century BCE to the Maccabean revolt against the Greek Seleucids some 500 years later (around the time the original story probably emerged as a kind of roman-à-clef).

That’s how Judith is established, however belatedly, as an acclaimed but wholly allegorical member of the very real Hasmonean family, a defender of her people matching Esther, the linchpin of the Purim drama.

The transformation’s easily done. Why celebrate just one heroine a year on Purim if we can testify to another for Chanukah as well? “It’s a tradition!” as Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye never fails to remind us.

Once that’s settled there’s no stopping her. The 11th century liturgical poet Joseph ben Solomon of Carcassonne welcomes her to the synagogue in a piyyut for Shabbat Chanukah. Her citations in biblical commentary are led by none other than the venerable Rashi of Troyes. She features in Jacob ben Asher’s ground-breaking legal code Orach Chayim. The Rothschild Miscellany, that most sumptuous of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from the Venetian Renaissance, is graced by her image, and she stands triumphant on numerous bronze and silver Chanukah lamps from Italy and Germany, brandishing Holofernes’ sword in one hand and grasping his head with the other.

She even storms that hallowed domestic shrine, the family kitchen, to oust the Septuagint’s account of her menu and reveal the culinary secret of how she provoked her quarry’s thirst and make him drunk.

We’re told she fed him the saltiest of cheeses, conceivably the distinguished halloumi from Cyprus, inspiring inventive Chanukah cheese bakes for centuries after.

Alas, those recipes, however tempting, can’t compete in our day with the ubiquitous potato latke (thereby hangs another tale), let alone with the traditional Shavuot cheesecake.

Yet there are said to be one or two places in Israel still faithful to Judith’s legacy where you can salute her at Chanukah time with delectable cheese dishes of all kinds.

In her honour, then, and with apologies to Trafalgar Square, that’s surely where, God willing, we should be lighting our candles and singing Maoz Tzur this time round next year.


Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts.


“Artemisia” is at the National Gallery until Sunday, January 24, 2021.


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