The Eloquence of Symbols: Studies in Humanist Art

By Edgar Wind; Jaynie Anderson | Go to book overview

III · Donatello's Judith A Symbol of Sanctimonia

THE name Holofernes is translated in medieval textbooks by the words enervans vitulum saginatum (he who weakens the fatted calf). In the allegories of the Biblia Pauperum and the Speculum humanae salvationis, Holofernes stands for the Devil, just like Goliath, Haman, or any other vicious fiend. By virtue of his name, however, he often signifies that particular power of the Devil by which Man was first tempted and seduced: Incontinence, or by her Latin name, Luxuria. Durandus in his Rationale divinorum officiorum, a book that was handed down in innumerable manuscript copies and was printed in forty-four editions in the fifteenth century alone,1 gives a full account of the symbolic significance attributed to the victory of Judith over Holofernes:

The Church also directs us towards sanctimony, or to continence, by the example of Judith. For just as she slew Holofernes, which means he who weakens the fatted calf, so the Church directs that we should slay Holofernes, i.e. the devil, who weakens and slays the lascivious in the world, which is to be achieved through sanctimony by cutting off his head. For the head of the devil is luxury, because it is, as it were, first with this that he begins to tempt men, and for that reason the Lord says: Let your loins be girded about ( Luke xii), that is, gird yourselves against the first vice, like that passage in Exodus at the eating of the lamb: With your loins girded ( Exodus xii). But in another way pride is the beginning of all sin.2

In the last sentence of this text a second interpretation is added to the first. Holofernes signifies Luxuria, the primeval form of sin, but he can also signify Superbia because she is alio modo initium omnis peccati. Donatello was acquainted with this particular tradition; for

____________________
Journal of the Warburg Institute, I ( 1937), pp. 62 f. (with additions to the notes).
1
J. Sauer, Symbolik des Kirchengebäudes ( 1924), p. 32.
2
Durandus, Rationale divinorum officiorum, VI, cxxviii, I: 'Et monet nos Ecclesia ad sanctimoniam, sive ad continentiam, exemplo Judith. Sicut enim interfecit Holofernem, qui interpretatur enervans vitulum saginatum, sic monet Ecclesia, ut interficiamus Holofernem, idest diabolum, qui enervat, et interficit lascivos mundi, quod fiet per sanctimoniam abscindendo ei caput. Nam caput diaboli est luxuria, quia quasi primo de ea incipit homines tentare, et ideo Dominus dicit: Sint lumbi vestri praecincti ( Luc. xii), hoc est praecingatis vos contra primum vitium, juxta illud Exodi in comestione agni: Renes vestros accingetis ( Exod. xii). Alio tamen modo superbia est initium omnis peccati.'

-37-

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