The biblical story of Judith and Holofernes has long inspired artists. The story involves the widow Judith, who finds herself the object of the General Holofernes' desire. Holofernes has come to Judith's city, Bethulia, to invade and destroy it. Under the pretence of giving in to Holofernes' advances, Judith enters his tent. Plying Holofernes with drink, Judith waits until he passes out, before beheading him with the aid of her servant. In the process, Judith saves her city from the Assyrian General and his army. The story was always of interest to medieval writers, but achieved even greater popularity with artists in the renaissance and baroque periods. The moment of the beheading has been captured most famously by Artemisia Gentileschi and Caravaggio. The two artists staging of the scene may well have inspired Goya’s work.
Goya's painting itself however differentiates itself from previous painting of the scene. Perhaps most notably, Holofernes himself is cut out from the image. Instead Goya presents the viewer with only Judith and the servant, caught at the pivotal moment. In the foreground Judith brandishes the blade, her other arm leading off the canvas, presumably holding Holofernes down. Behind her, the maid servant prays to God, illuminated by a yellow light that surrounds her clasped hands.
Whereas previous depictions of the biblical story emphasised gore, alongside the contortions of Holofernes' body in the struggle, Goya's painting emphasises different aspects of the tale. The subdued colour pallet, typical of the Black Paintings, eschews the rich reds of blood and fabrics. Instead Goya opts only for greys, whites, and blacks, bathed only in the yellow light emanating from the servants clasped hands.
In fact, by shifting Holofernes outside the image, this act of prayer becomes a new focal point for the picture. Goya is not so much revelling in the gore of the story, as drawing attention in some way to the piety behind it. This may perhaps seem all the more strange as the painting originally hung next to Goya’s famed Saturn Devouring his Son, an image that certainly doesn't shy away from gore. Ultimately, Goya has brought his inimitable style to bear on one of the great artistic topics of the renaissance. In the process, he gives viewers the chance to see the story in a new and original light.