Cranach executed more than a dozen versions of the subject of Judith and Holofernes throughout his career. The main prototype appears to be the large panel of circa 1530, now in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (Friedländer and Rosenberg, Cranach, 1978, pp. 115-116, no. 230). The present work has been identified as a mature work by the artist, datable to circa 1545. It is also the most diminutive of the known autograph versions but sacrifices nothing in the quality of its draftsmanship or exquisite detail. The juxtaposition between the energetic veins in the marble shelf, the gruesome coldness of Holofernes's severed head and the sensitivity of Judith's features reveals the artist at his most expressive.
The subject of Judith and Holofernes became popular in the Middle Ages as an image of virtue overcoming vice or an allegory of man's misfortunes at the hands of scheming women. Judith, a patriotic Jewish heroine, became a symbol of the Jews' struggle against their ancient oppressors in the Near East. The Assyrian army, under the command of their general Holofernes, had laid siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. When the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a wealthy young widow, devised a scheme to save them. She adorned herself 'so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her' (Old Testament, Apocrypha; 10:5) and set off with a maid into the enemy lines. By pretending to desert her people, she gained access to Holofernes and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for overcoming the Jews. After she had been several days in the camp, Holofenes became enamored of her and planned a banquet to which she was invited. When it was over and they were alone, he intended to seduce her but he was quickly overcome with liquor. Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows severed his head. Taking the head in a sack, Judith and her maid made their way back to Bethulia before the deed was discovered. The murder threw the Assyrians into disarray and they fled, pursued by the Israelites.
We are grateful to both Dr. Dieter Koepplin (written communication, 23 October 2009) and Dr. Werner Schade (written communication, 5 November 2009) for confirming the attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder on the basis of photographs. Both suggest that this is a late work by the artist, dateable to circa 1545.