Judith and Abra – 28 August 2019
Two young women are still, listening. Their heads bend towards each other, as they warily look around them. Right at the centre of the picture is the head of a man in a basket, visually circled by the women’s bodies – hands, arms, shoulders and faces. This is a painting of Judith (on the left) with her maid Abra, just after she has beheaded the Assyrian general Holofernes. To do this deed Judith has used the general’s own sword, which she still holds in her hand, his blood dripping onto her dress.
In the story of Judith (in the apocrypha) Holofernes was engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing across what is now Syria and the middle East. . He was an enslaver of peoples and violator of women. He personified evil, and the people of Israel were ‘exceedingly afraid of him’. Here he has been defeated by two women, but they still need to carry away his head as a sign that this evil enemy – masculine, violent and oppressive – has indeed been overcome.
The picture, by Orazio Gentileschi (1624), can be understood metaphorically. It is a visual representation of the possibility that brave women working together can resist violent patriarchal oppression.
And they cried to the Lord the God of Israel with one accord, that their children might not be made a prey, and their wives carried off, and their cities destroyed, and their holy things profaned.
Lord we pray that you grant for every woman what her soul can imagine:
to walk without fear of violence
to eat well with her children and send them to school
to receive healthcare when she and her family need it
to work and pay her bills
to sleep under the safety of a mosquito net
and to share laughter with family and friends.
Nana Anto-Awuakye, adapted