The subject is taken from the Old Testament book of Judith.
The King of Nineveh, sends his general Holofernes to subdue the Jews. The latter besieges them in Bethulia.
Famine undermines the courage of the besieged and they contemplate surrender, but Judith, a widow, claims that she will deliver the city. She goes into the camp of the Assyrians and captivates Holofernes by her beauty, and finally takes advantage of the general's intoxication to cut off his head.
She returns inviolate to the city with his head as a trophy.
In a Christian context, the story of the Jewish heroine represents the triumph of virtue over evil, of Humility triumphing over Pride.
The theme of Judith was very popular in the Renaissance, especially Florence, where the sub-text was the triumph over tyranny (consider the importance of the theme of David triumphing over Goliath in the city)
Judith was considered the prototype of female strength. There is always an undercurrent of eroticism in the subject.
The subject of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes was one of the most popular subjects in Christian art of the 1600s and 1700s. During the Counter-Reformation, the subject also became a powerful symbol of the Catholic Church’s triumph over heresy, or dissent from its teachings.