My website, MyGiorgione, now includes my interpretations of Giorgione's "Tempest" as "The Rest on the Flight into Egypt"; his "Three Ages of Man" as "The Encounter of Jesus with the Rich Young Man"; Titian's, "Sacred and Profane Love" as "The Conversion of Mary Magdalen"; and Titian's "Pastoral Concert" as his "Homage to Giorgione".

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Giorgione: Judith

Although originally given to Raphael, scholars have for over a century agreed that the Hermitage "Judith with the Head of Holofernes" is an early work by Giorgione. Moreover, they agree that it is a ground-breaking work.

Giorgione: Judith
Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Oil transferred from wood to canvas
144 x68 cm

In 1996 Jaynie Anderson wrote: “With this small picture, Giorgione introduces the Jewish heroine of the Apocrypha to Venetian painting….” (292). Three years later Terisio Pignatti wrote that “Giorgione’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes introduces numerous innovations that make the painting fascinating, particularly in the field of iconography…” (52)

Characteristically, Giorgione avoided the use of stock or standard iconographical elements. In 2007 Wolfgang Eller noted that Giorgione’s painting contains “no optical indication of the events. There is no female servant, no tent, no besieged city, and no waiting figures in the background that illustrate the story.” (47)

All commentators seem to agree that the most striking element in the painting is the bare leg of Judith. According to Terisio Pignati, “Giorgione inserts a completely new motif in the garments which reveal the left leg of the woman.” (122) But they can find no good explanation and fall back on “eroticism” and “sensuality.” According to Wolfgang Eller,

“the raised leg makes an extensive laying bare of the female thigh possible for the painter. In Giorgione’s time, this was considered highly erotic, for a woman to show only her calves was even more daring than a bare bosom. Thus from the aspect of the observer of those times, the depicted figure is identifiable as being erotic.” (48)

It would appear, however, that in depicting the “bare thigh” Giorgione was just paying close attention to the biblical account in the Latin Vulgate, the only Bible in use at the time.

Chapter 9 of the Book of Judith gives the famous prayer of the Jewish heroine as she prepares for her encounter with the enemy tyrant. Here is verse 2 from the Jerusalem Bible.
Lord, God of my father Simeon,You armed him with a sword to take vengeance on the foreignersWho had undone a virgin’s girdle to her shame,Laid bare her thigh to her confusion, violated her womb to her dishonor… 
Judith is referring to the story of the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and the sister of Simeon, from the Book of Genesis, 34: 1-3. 
“Dinah, who was Jacob’s daughter by Leah, went out to visit the women of that region. Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, who was ruler of that region, saw her, carried her off and raped her, and so dishonoured her.”
This incident led to the slaughter of the Hivite men after they had been tricked into undergoing circumcision.

It would appear that Giorgione used an exposed thigh to indicate a woman in danger of sexual assault. In another early work that we only have in a 17th century copy by David Teniers, Giorgione used the same motif. He exposed the thigh of the Madonna in a depiction of the apocryphal encounter with robbers on the flight into Egypt. This copy of the lost Giorgione has for centuries been mis-identified as the “Discovery of Paris,” but in my paper on the “Tempest” I have demonstrated that it should be called the “Encounter with the Robbers on the Flight into Egypt.”

Giorgione also paid close attention to another element in the biblical account. Chapter 10 of the Book of Judith gives a detailed account of Judith putting on her finery.
There she removed the sackcloth she was wearing and, taking off her widow’s dress, she washed all over, anointed herself with costly perfumes, dressed her hair, wrapped a turban around it and put on the dress she used to wear on joyful occasions when her husband Manasseh was alive. She put sandals on her feet, put on her necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her jewelry, and made herself beautiful enough to catch the eye of every man who saw her.
Judith’s deed is usually seen as an heroic attempt to deliver not just herself but her people from danger. Yet during the Renaissance she was often seen as a prototype of Mary. Perhaps it was this aspect that influenced Giorgione or his patron. Judith’s prayer (9:11) sounds very similar to Mary’s famous Magnificat.
Your strength does not lie in numbers,Nor your might in violent men;Since you are the God of the humble,
The help of the oppressed,
The support of the weak,The refuge of the forsaken,The savior of the despairing.
The Book of Judith is still included in Catholic bibles today, but it has been rejected by Protestants. As far as I know it is no longer in the Hebrew canon although the name Judith still retains its popularity.


Note: According to Anderson Giorgione’s painting was originally a door panel since there is evidence of a painted over keyhole.


Anderson, Jaynie: Giorgione, 1997.

Eller, Wolfgang: Giorgione Catalog Raisonne, Petersberg, 2007.

Pignatti, Terisio and Pedrocco, Filippo: Giorgione, Rizzoli, 1999.


  1. This is a an interesting interpretation about the exposed leg. Feminist art historians generally interpret images of Judith within themes of female empowerment, but your interpretation suggests a vulnerability that I have never considered before.

    I'm also struck by the fact that Judith has her head resting on Holofernes' head. Like you mentioned, Giorgione's painting differs from traditional representations of this subject. In addition to what you have mentioned, depictions of Judith usually show her in the act of striking (or about to strike) Holofernes. It's interesting to compare how Giorgione's portrait is more similar in composition to Donatello's David (with the exposed leg resting on the decapitated head) than other traditional Judith representations. I wonder if there might be a connection between these works of art. (On a side note, since I've mentioned Donatello, it is also interesting to note differences between the Giorgione painting with Donatello's Judith and Holofernes.)

  2. M:

    In her Giorgione catalog Jaynie Anderson included a discussion of Florentine Judiths by Donatello (and others), and saw them as "an attempt to create a feminine analog to the heroic nudity of his David." I'm not so sure that the pairing was common in Venice.

    Also, Donatello did a completely nude Judith as well as a clothed version. (By the way, your link was to his David) Luca Signorelli also painted a monochrome version of a nude Judith on one of the doorways of the S. Brisio chapel in Orvieto. I don't have a good image yet but she looks like an Amazon. I also believe that most of the depictions of the actual decapitation came later during the Baroque era.

    I'm not sure if feminist art interpretations work with Giorgione. The lesson of the story of Judith, as well as David, is that God uses the humble and the lowly to effect his will. I believe that is the Renaissance view of empowerment.

    Thanks for the comment.


  3. Fascinating post Frank - and much to discuss!

    Firstly, I am interested in what evidence came to light that made scholars switch the attribution from Raphael? Is it purely stylistic (connoisseurship), or has there been more recent scientific or documentary evidence localising it to Venice? eg. has the building the door was from or the original patron identified?

    Subsequently, M has noted something unaddressed in your post - and also the first thing I noted when I saw this image many years ago - the contrapposto pose!

    Giorgione's seems to have some familiarity with this form, (eg. the male in Tempest or the Knight in the Castelfranco Madonna), but even these are not a classical contrapposto as this Judith is, with that prominent diagonal in the forward limb.

    @M - I think focusing on the contrapposto element may be a little easier to navigate than the suggestion that Giorgione either visited Florence to view Donatello's work or had seen an image of it! It's definitely not impossible, but I wouldnt let much rest on it other than a suggestion in the absence of evidence.

    As we know of Raphael, this classical pose made the greatest impact on his work after his time in Florence, and was further emphasised during his Roman period.

    @Frank - As for the iconography, the Vulgate source is a nice fit, though I am still having trouble seeing a vulnerable woman in that image - she has a sword and her foot on a man's head!

    Rather than the bared thigh indicating vulnerability, can't it instead be operating in these two modes: 1) confirming the theme in accordance with the vulgate source. 2) adding a visual centrepiece to the work to draw the eye, attract attention, and promote discussion.

    Suggesting a hierachy of importance of these elements seems to be something more relevant to the commentator than the artist. I would venture to say that most people looking at that image would first notice the exposed thigh, and not immediately think of the Vulgate Bible!

    This is congruent with other examples of Giorgione's own visual language. Otherwise he never would include these sensual elements, which he often seems to do (as seen in Tempest, Dresden Venus in particular).

    Marcia B. Hall made a revelatory statement about artists thematic choices in her new book on the sacred image. I hope to be discussing it in my upcoming review. That deliberate choice to walk the line between piety and sensuality is clearer in this than any other Giorgione work. I know you would argue that Tempesta also achieves the same with the nude Madonna, though less observers have acquiesced that it is a sacred themed work, which is easier to achieve in this instance.


  4. H:

    Thanks for taking so much time to read and comment. It appears that the Judith was first described in a 17th century catalog of the holdings of England's Charles I, whose collection was broken up after his decapitation. About a century later it was attributed to Raphael but in the late 19th century scholars began to give it to Giorgione on stylistic grounds.

    No one has ever suggested that Giorgione visited Florence. It was Anderson who used Donatello as a point of comparison but she did not claim that Giorgione had seen the original statue.

    My guess is that a simple approach works best for this painting. A patron wants a portrayal of Judith and Holofernes. The painter consults the biblical account and sees the naked thigh as a key pictorial element. He then condenses the whole narrative into one panel. The naked thigh represents Judith's danger. The Lord is her protector and her triumph is depicted in the traditional way with her foot on the severed head of the enemy. In a vertical panel like this one there is no room to depict the actual beheading.


  5. That explanation definitely fits Frank, though I would still think it is valid to state that the exposed thigh is *also* a means of engaging the viewer in an aesthetic sense as well, surely you can concede that!

    It's that interplay of factors that is the allure of Giorgione, not one over the other but a nice melange!