Choose a language
Use Arthive in the language you prefer
Sign up
Create an account
Register to use Arthive functionality to the maximum

A good question. Heads up: how to tell the difference between Judith and Salome?

Judith and Salome were high-profile and strong-willed women. Both acted decisively and used their attractiveness as a weapon. Men often lost their heads when they were around. In painting, Judith and Salome often symbolize the same thing — the predatory, destructive and fatal feminine beauty. As the phrase goes, a strong woman is both soft and powerful, she is both practical and spiritual. And yet these are completely different images. Arthive will tell you how to distinguish the two main biblical femme fatales not only by swords and platters.
A good question. Heads up: how to tell the difference between Judith and Salome?
According to the generally accepted version, Judith lived in the 6th century BC in the Jewish city of Bethulia. She early became a widow — her husband died in the barley harvest when "the heat came upon his head". Judith inherited a considerable fortune — jewellery, land, cattle and servants. However, she was very modest and pious. After the death of her husband, Judith put sackcloth upon her loins, built a tent for herself on the roof of her house and lived there for three years in prayers and abstinence.

Meanwhile, the Assyrians came to conquer Judea — located in the mountains, the well-fortified Bethulia blocked all accesses to Jerusalem. After a long siege, the townspeople, left without food and water, made their leaders promise to surrender the town after five days if God would not save it. The kids cried. The leaders hesitated. God did nothing.

And Judith came down from the roof.

She washed her body, and anointed herself with the best ointment. She declared that God would deliver the town by her hand. The elders listened to her with their mouths open: the widow’s faith was astounding, and besides, three and a half years were enough for the townspeople to forget how beautiful and attractive Judith was. They had nothing to lose. The guards opened the gate to let Judith and her maid out.
Giorgione. Judith
1504, 144×68 cm
Arriving at the enemy’s camp, Judith introduced herself to the Assyrian commander Holofernes as a prophetess. She promised to help him capture the town without losing a single soldier, because the people of Bethulia had lost faith and the support of their God. Holofernes, amazed at Judith’s courage and beauty, received her with honour.

For three days, Judith was walking around the Assyrian camp, jingling her gold bracelets and darting glances. On the fourth day, Holofernes invited Judith to his tent — to drink, listen to music, and talk about art. Of course, he let his guards go.

Further events of that memorable evening developed according to a scenario that has not changed much in the last two thousand years: Holofernes got rip-roaring drunk with wine and fell asleep. Judith chopped off his head with his own sword and left the war camp unhindered with her trophy.

The demoralized, literally decapitated Assyrian army retreated.
She returned to Bethulia to a saviour’s welcome, the whole city was at her feet. However, she didn’t claim any reward and didn’t hang Holofernes’s head above the fireplace. She put on her sackcloth, climbed onto the roof and lived there until 105 years, after which she was buried with honours beside her husband.
Salome lived about 500 years later — the times and morals were already different. Princess of Judaea, Salome was first married to her uncle and later — to her cousin. Salome’s mother, Herodias, was married to Herod II and had a relationship with her husband’s half-brother — Herod Antipas. This connection was publicly condemned by John the Baptist.

One, at the banquet held for Antipas’s birthday, Salome danced for the hero of the occasion. And she did it so well that Antipas promised to give her whatever she asked as a reward for her dancing. The girl demanded the head of John the Baptist.

Herod Antipas was taken aback. He knew that John was "a righteous and holy man" and his execution would not be the most populist decision. But it was too late to beat a retreat — after all, he had pledged his word. The head of John the Baptist was given to Salome on a platter.

Some chroniclers consider the story with the dance (and Salome’s involvement in that grim historical episode in general) a legend — Herod Antipas had enough political reasons to execute John the Baptist. One way or another, Salome got into history as a conniving temptress, and this is how she is portrayed in a number of paintings. Thus, the metaphorical meaning is preserved in this story — it wasn’t only Saint John who lost his head, but also Herod Antipas.
In painting, Judith and Salome are often distinguished only by formal matter. If there’s a sword (and a maid) — it is Judith. If there’s a platter (or a dance) — it must be Salome.

These are numerous Judiths and Salomes by Lucas Cranach the Elder (by the way, his Holofernesses and Johns are also distinguished by their amazing portrait similarity).

  • Lucas Cranach the Elder. Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1540.
  • Lucas Cranach the Elder. Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, 1530.
In Caravaggio’s interpretations, the platter and the sword are also important — it would be difficult to identify the heroines without them. His Judith is wearing a simple dress (not the luxurious clothes and jewels that were mentioned in the text of The Old Testament); her countenance spoke fastidious concentration rather than heroic determination.
When it comes to Caravaggio’s Salome, nothing gives away a conniving temptress who maddened Herod Antipas — she casually bends over the body of John the Baptist, holding her platter and looking more like a servant who was called to scrub blood from the floor.
It is quite obvious that Caravaggio wasn’t interested in "historical authenticity" or even in psychological and emotional aspects of what was happening. He was fascinated by the very process of "beheading". Having a pathological interest in violence, he attended public executions and often returned to the subject of beheading. The artist even took a liberty of making a grimly elegant stroke — he drowned the signature in the Baptist’s blood, which was discovered only centuries later, during the restoration of the painting.

Some researchers believe that in this way Caravaggio encrypted the confession in the murder of a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni (it was because of the charge of this crime that Caravaggio fled from Rome in 1606).
Moreover, there is a version stating that Caravaggio depicted himself as Holofernes: his interest in the process had a masochistic undertone.
Surprisingly, not everyone was looking for the key to interpreting the images of Judith and Salome in their motives and true selves. One of them was a righteous person and a heroine, who saved her people. The other one — an extravagant and bloodthirsty temptress mired in debauchery and luxury.

Judith, who personified such universal virtues as a steadfast faith, courage and chastity, was always up to scratch. In wartime, she became a symbol of patriotism and resistance to intervention. At the time of the Counter-Reformation, her image was very popular with the Inquisition, which also believed that a good heretic was a headless heretic.
For example, Giorgio Vasari’s Judith is a literal interpretation of the image of a "strong woman". It is at once apparent that a woman like her would never be seen alone, crying by the window. The muscles of this charming woman are so impressive that, it seems, if there hadn’t been any sword, she would have torn off Holofernes’s head with her bare hands.

In addition to the obvious bravery, courage and strength, Judith happened to embody not-so-traditional (at least by the standards of the XVII century) values and ideas.
Artemisia Gentileschi depicted herself as Judith. The artist’s Holofernes has the features of her teacher Agostino Tassi, who subjected her to sexual assault. So, centuries before Harvey Weinstein’s trial, Judith paved the way for the idea of gender revenge.
As for Salome, her image in art has been romanticized for centuries. Vasily Surikov’s interpretation, depicting Salome and her mother as predatory and unattractive women, remains overshadowed by the gorgeous Salomes, the seductive Salomes, the mysterious Salomes and the Salomes, whom are desired because they are evil, dangerous and carnivorous.

With the course of time, the conventional boundaries that allowed to distinguish between these two images in painting got more and more dissolved. Both heroines have become fatal beauties. Both stories have acquired distinct erotic undertones.
  • Franz von Stuck. Judith and Holofernes, 1927.
  • Franz von Stuck. Salome, 1906.
The climax in the process of "merging" was reached by Gustav Klimt. His first Judith was so different from the Old Testament heroine that the public considered her name a mistake. Critics, museum curators — everyone was sure that Klimt got the title wrong: even in some catalogues, the painting appeared under the name Salome. In the end, Klimt made the signature right on the frame
It has always been important for artists and art collectors how to frame their works of art. We can paraphrase Shakespeare and say,

“What’s in a frame? That which we call a picture
In an improper frame will look less nice.”

Or, perhaps, the picture’s message will be obscured by too ornate or too plain framing. Here, we present a retrospective journey into the history of framing and its evolution, with illustrations and an expert’s commentary. Read more
. He painted Adele Bloch-Bauer — a woman, who made him lose his own head. Klimt, of course, was not holy and certainly did not associate himself with John the Baptist.
Why are the righteous Judith and the vicious Salome both attractive and equally desirable is another good question. How did it happen that there was so much written, painted, danced and sung in Salome’s honour? Why did one asteroid being named after Judith caused another one being called Salome? That’s probably because most astronomers are men.

It’s a story older than time. Males will risk their heads if they can get the prize. Ask Caravaggio, the characters of the film Basic Instinct, or even a praying mantis.
Author: Andrii Zymohliadov

Cover illustration: Lucas Cranach the Elder. From left to right: Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1540; Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, 1530; Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1530; Salome, 1540.

Arthive: watch us on Instagram