Professor of Art Elena Ciletti recently co-edited a book titled, “The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines.” The anthology covers Judaic and Christian textual traditions, as well as artistic interpretations in the visual arts, music and drama. The Book of Judith is a religious text of Jewish origins, with an equivocal scriptural history. For both Jews and most Protestants, it is excluded from the biblical canon but utilized for teaching, while Catholics accept it fully among the “Old Testament Apocrypha.” Judith is an ambiguous and contradictory heroine who saves the people of Israel with piety, courage, duplicity and violence. This has given rise to a wide range of symbolic applications, according to the cultural outlook of those who have looked to her. The result is an immense variability in her depictions – from femme-fatale to righteous amazon to prefiguration of the Virgin Mary.
Ciletti was a member of the organizing committee for an international conference on the subject at the New York Public Library in 2008. Its momentum has contributed to the emerging interdisciplinary field of “Judith Studies,” as illustrated in “The Sword of Judith” anthology, which is available in print and digitally. According to the publisher, Open Book, “The Sword of Judith is the first multidisciplinary collection of essays to discuss representations of Judith throughout the centuries. It transforms our understanding across a wide range of disciplines. The collection includes new archival source studies, the translation of unpublished manuscripts, the translation of texts unavailable in English, and Judith images and music.”
The Book of Judith tells the story of a beautiful, chaste young widow of a small Jewish community which is under siege by a vast Assyrian army. The community loses its faith in its protective covenant with God and begins to prepare for surrender, but Judith pleads to intervene. With only the aid of her maid, she approaches the enemy camp and charms the Assyrian general, verbally feigning compliance to his will. When he is inebriated and asleep, she decapitates him. Judith returns home with the head, declares herself to have been the mere handmaiden of the Lord’s might against proud heathens, and riles everyone up enough to devastate the enemy forces.
The story of Judith is an intriguing subject because of its multiple values, seen in the heroine’s chastity, fortitude, feminine allure and anti-heretical vengeance, which vary in emphasis depending on who is interpreting the story. Such is the case in Ciletti’s specialty of visual depictions during the late Renaissance by artists such as Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. She is working on a book which explores this imagery in relation to the culture of the Counter-Reformation Church, which deployed Judith as propaganda against what it saw as the heresies of the Protestants and also as a model of ideal female virtues.