Judith by Botticelli

Hanukkah celebrations include the story of Judith and Holofernes, written in the book of Judith, one of the books of the Apocrypha.  Judith was a pious beautiful Jewish woman who saved her people through bravery and guile by seducing Holofernes, an Assyrian general who was sieging her town.  She beheaded him when he was drunk, infatuated, and near naked, and the siege was ended.
Sandro Botticelli painted the scene of Judith with Holofernes's head  between 1469 and1470.   Botticelli painted Judith holding a branch, as she returns with the head, as seen in the detail above. 

Could Judith have been holding a henna branch?
The branch from Botticelli's painting of Judith compared to henna branches.

Botticelli's BranchHenna Branches

The branch in Judith's hand has been interpreted as an olive branch, a sign of peace, and as a myrtle, a symbol of Venus.  Botticelli frequently used plants as narrative symbolism in his paintings, particularly his allegorical paintings. 

Could Judith's branch have been an olive branch? 
The branch in Judith's hand more closely resembles a henna branch than an olive branch.  The pairing of leaves along the stem is correct, but olive leaves are more elongated than those depicted.

View pictures of olive leaves at:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Olive-tree-leaf-0.jpg
View pictures of olive branches at: http://www.lifeinitaly.com/food/olives.asp
View additional pictures of olive trees and branches at: http://www.eastofedenplants.co.uk/olive_guide.htm

It would seem unusual that Botticelli would paint an olive leaves inaccurately, as he must have been familiar with olive trees growing in Italy.  In Pallas and the Centaur, painted by Botticelli in 1482, there is a depiction of olive branches surrounding Pallas Athena.  These leaves are darker and more elongated than the branch in the Judith painting, and the branches are pliable, not rigid.

View Pallas and the Centaur by Botticelli: http://www.wga.hu/art/b/botticel/5allegor/20pallas.jpg

Could Judith's branch have been myrtle?
Crape myrtles are Lythraceae (loosestrife family) as are henna. Myrtle closely resembles henna, and Botticelli  frequently painted myrtle into his paintings, especially
  in conjunction with Venus, as in his painting, Primavera, 1482, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

View pictures of Botticelli's other allegorical paintings at: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/botticel/5allegor/40venusm.html
View Venus with Myrtle at: http://www.wga.hu/art/b/botticel/5allegor/12primav.jpg
For more information on Myrtle see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myrtle

The leaves on  Venus's myrtles are much darker and larger than the leaves on Judith's branch.  The leaves on Judith's branch are not longer than the length from the tip of her thumb to the middle knuckle, about 3 cm in real life. The myrtle leaves that accompany Venus in Primavera are as long as the length of the tip of her thumb to the base of the thumb, about 6 cm, even without allowing for perspective.  Henna leaves are about 3 cm long, and never grow 6 cm long.

It is possible that Judith's branch is myrtle, but the color and size of the leaves on her branch is inconsistant with that interpretation, and the strong association between myrtle and sexual passion and beauty as represented by Venus, rather than victory as represented by Judith, is also inconsistant.

Could Judith's branch have been henna? 

Could Botticelli, in 15th century Florence, have been aware of henna, or that it symbolized victory?  Henna would not have grown in Florence, but it could easily have grown in southernmost Italy and Sicily. Since Botticelli painted orange trees with blossoms in his paintings, he was aware of plants that did not grow in the immediate vicinity of Florence.

It is plausible that Botticelli could have seen a living henna plant, or at least a few branches that had been pressed and dried.  Henna was widely used in Turkey during the Renaissance century for hair and skin adornment, and Italian travelers to Turkey described such. Florentine and Venetian merchants imported goods from Istanbul, and this may have included henna.
Therefore, it is plausible that Botticelli could have known about henna.  Could he have known that henna was used in connection with victory in battle? It would be difficult to prove that Botticelli was familiar with the Middle Eastern tradition of women celebrating victory with henna:  but neither would it be impossible for him to be aware of such.  Both Arabic and Jewish texts were kept in homes and libraries through Southern Europe prior to the Inquisition.

The depiction of Judith returning with the head of Holofernes is a moment of victory.  If Botticelli was aware that henna was used in victory celebrations in the Middle East, particularly by women, he could have deliberately placed henna in Judith's hand to convey victory rather than peace which is symbolized by an olive branch.

For symbolism of the olive branch, see:

It is not possible to prove that Botticelli intended Judith's branch to be henna and to symbolize women's traditional use of henna in victory celebrations in the Middle East, but it does resemble a henna branch much more than it does an olive branch or a myrtle branch, and the symbolism is more consistent.

Can't find what you're looking for?  Try:
The Henna Page Main Index 
*"Henna, the Joyous Body Art" 
the Encyclopedia of Henna
Catherine Cartwright-Jones c 2000 
registered with the US Library of Congress
TXu 952-968