At the fin de siècle, the figure of the Biblical Judith furthered the development of the image of the femme fatale as a decapitator of men. The Biblical story tells of the city of Bethulia, under siege by Holofernes, an invading general of Nebuchadnezzar. Judith, the daring Jewish woman, manages to enter the enemy camp, seduce Holofernes and then behead him while he is drunk. According to the Book of Judith 13:6-9,

Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence, And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid.

Judith thus saves the city and her people.

Depictions of Judith are a popular theme in art; Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt, to name a few, painted her as an idealized martyr. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, traditional idealized representations of Judith as a domineering adolescent predominated in art. But as Bram Dijkstra points out the image of Judith changed at the fin de siècle. He writes of the heroine, “In the Bible Judith had been a paragon of self-sacrificial martyrdom for a noble cause. The late nineteenth-century painters, however, unmasked her as a lustful predator, an anorexic tigress” (377).

The German symbolist painter Franz von Stuck depicted Judith several times, in paintings titled exactly the same: Judith and Holofernes, as if attempting to document every stage of woman’s fatal encounter with man, the enemy. In all depictions Judith stands completely nude above Holofernes who lies on a bed to her right. But every one of von Stuck’s paintings captures a separate moment in Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes. In one depiction she raises Holofernes’ sword with only one hand and looks down at the Holofernes with a look of utter despise. In a second version, she stands over Holofernes who has raised his arms to his sides as if being crucified. Judith holds the sword with both hands close to her face and seems to laugh haughtily at the prostrate figure of Holofernes. And in yet another depiction it appears as though she swings the sword back, about to give him the fatal blow. Von Stuck’s obsessive depicting of Judith as a dangerously seductive and deadly woman serves to characterize the general obsession with the figure of the femme fatalein the fin de siècle imagination.

The most popular depictions of Judith are most certainly those of the Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. The pair of highly decorative paintings — typical of fin de siècle Austria — presents Judith as a sexually charged feminine figure. As Margarita Stocker points out in her book Judith: Sexual Warrior, in Klimt’s paintings Judith is fetishized,

In Judith I, her face registers an orgasmic joy in symbolic castration of the man. One breast is bare, its tinted flesh reified by the hard gold plating that transmogrifies her clothes and jewels. All the surfaces are textures of a high density, as if of the inanimate kind suggested by her gems. . . . This is orgasm as both brilliant and cruel, symbolized as the female body itself. In Judith II, the effect of cruelty is intensified into a voracious malice, the hands are talons. Both express Decadence’s fatalizing of the female. (Stocker 175-176)

Many art catalogues title Judith II as Salome, although it is unclear whether this was Klimt’s intention. In the painting the figure stands almost in profile, her breasts entirely bare, as she holds in her jeweled, claw-like fingers the head of Holofernes (or John the Baptist) by the hair. Bram Dijkstra points out, “Klimt’s Salome/Judith is a heady mixture of vampire lore, high fashion, and the period’s obsession with the notion that the headhuntress had desired to obtain hands-on knowledge of John the Baptist’s head” (Dijkstra 388). In true Decadent form, Klimt’s image of Judith served to vilify the Biblical heroine and in effect blended her with the darker, more bloodthirsty image of Salome.

Salome, Judith, and Decapitated Men in the Fin de Siècle imagination


Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Stocker, Margarita. Judith: Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Last modified 26 December 2006