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Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, 1613
Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1614–1620

In the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, Holofernes (Greek: Ὀλοφέρνης; Hebrew הולופרנס) was an invading Assyrian general dispatched by Nebuchadnezzar to take vengeance on the nation who withheld assistance for his recent war. Holofernes occupied all the countries along the sea coast and destroyed all their gods, so that they would worship Nebuchadnezzar alone. Holofernes was warned against attacking the Jewish people by Achior, the leader of the Ammonites, which angered him and his followers; they rebuked him, insisting that there was no god other than Nebuchadnezzar.

The general laid siege to Bethulia, commonly believed to be Meselieh, and the city almost fell. Holofernes's advance stopped the water supply to Bethulia, and the people lost heart and encouraged Ozias and their rulers to give way. The leaders vowed to surrender if no help arrived within five days.[1]

Bethulia was saved by Judith, a beautiful Hebrew widow who entered Holofernes's camp, seduced him, then beheaded him while he was drunk. She returned to Bethulia with the severed head, and the Hebrews defeated the enemy.

Hebrew versions of the tale in the Megillat Antiochus and the Chronicles of Jerahmeel identify "Holofernes" as Nicanor; the Greek version used "Holofernes" as deliberately cryptic substitute, similarly using "Nebuchadnezzar" for Antiochus.

Holofernes is depicted in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Monk's Tale in The Canterbury Tales, and in Dante's Purgatorio (where Holofernes is to be found on the Terrace of Pride as an example of "pride cast down", XII.58–60). As a painter's subject he offers the chance to contrast the flesh and jewels of a beautiful, festively attired woman with the grisly head of the victim, a deuterocanonical parallel to the Yael sequence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament vignette of Salome with the head of John the Baptist.

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  1. ^ Encyclopaedia biblica: a critical dictionary of the literary, political and religious history, the archaeology, geography, and natural history of the Bible, Volume 2, Thomas Kelly Cheyne and John Sutherland Black, A. and C. Black, 1901, pg. 2605.

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