Martin van Heemskerck chose to show the Old Testament heroine Judith at her moment of triumph, holding up the decapitated head of Holofernes, an Assyrian general. The Assyrians had besieged Judith’s city, but when the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, she developed a plan to save them. Dressing herself so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her, Judith entered the enemy camp and quickly entranced the general with her beauty. He invited her to his tent with plans to seduce her, but became too drunk. She was therefore able to grab his sword and sever his head.
The decapitated body of Holofernes, with its gushing wound, lies on a canopied bed in the elaborate tent to the right. Judith herself wears an intricate armored breastplate over her richly embroidered clothes. In the distance, the other Assyrian tents cluster outside the city walls, while the army marches up to the gate.
Van Heemskerck’s careful cross-hatching and neat penwork indicate that this was a final version of this drawing. It was then passed to a printmaker to be copied for the engraving of Judith in the series of six prints illustrating Good Women of the Old Testament.
Maerten van Heemskerck (Antwerp, 1498-1574) David confronts Goliath. Plate 6 of a series of 10 engravings after Heemskerck’s drawing, which is preserved in the Louvre and dated 1555. Originally published by Hieronymous Cock in 1556.