Judith, Holofernes, Balzac, vice and virtue

I’ve seen many paintings of Judith and Holofernes–by Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Cranach, and Klimt–but I didn’t until today know the one by Cristofano Allori, which is one of the most powerful of all of them. Indeed, I’d never heard of Allori, a Florentine painter.

Judith. Allori

I came across the painting in Balzac’s Cousin Bette, a novel about the unending struggle between virtue and vice. Josepha, a courtesan and opera singer representing vice, has dressed herself as finely as she can to meet with Adeline, the aged, trembling but still beautiful betrayed wife representing virtue.

Balzac writes:

“The singer looked like Allori’s Judith, who is graven in the memory of all those who have seen her in the Pitti Palace by the door of one of the great salons. She had the same proud bearing, the same sublime features, black hair simply knotted and a yellow housecoat embroidered with a thousand flowers, exactly like the brocade in which the immortal murderess, created by Bronzino’s nephew, is dressed.”

In the novel vice immediately gives way to virtue, but I was prompted to turn to my phone and find Allori’s Judith and Holofernes. Judith is undoubtedly beautiful, and her sumptuous golden gown, which dominates the painting, equally so. Looking at the head, hanging so mournfully at the bottom of the picture, I guessed it was the artist–and I was right.

Judith is perhaps both vice and virtue. She is a murderess who is usually depicted as having taken pleasure in the decapitation. Sometimes she is painted naked, emphasising the sexual nature of the encounter–castration as well as decapitation. She represents too the power of women, which is why Artemesia Gentileschi, who had been raped, chose to paint her in the act of decapitation. Yet Judith is virtue as well because she has saved her people and her town by getting the Assyrian general drunk and cutting off his head.


In his version Allori tells the story of his failed love affair with Maria de Giovanni Mazzafirri. She is Judith, the servant is her mother, and, as I guessed, the head is that of Allori himself. Still, out of his grief came a sublime painting, which I must now go and see in the Royal Collection





2 thoughts on “Judith, Holofernes, Balzac, vice and virtue

  1. Pingback: Cousin Bette by Balzac: sombre, fantastical, plausible | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

  2. Pingback: The Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy: the grandiose and the restful | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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