The Apocrypha and Western Culture


All of us are accustomed to seeing Biblical imagery, events and stories represented in painting, sculpture and other media, whether they be Michaelangelo’s Pieta, DaVinci’s The Last Supper, motion picture productions of The Ten Commandments, or even the recent full-length cartoon depicting Moses as The Prince of Egypt.  However, the Apocrypha, too, has contributed to the world of Western art, music, language, and culture. 


Most people are surprised to learn how pervasive the influence of the Apocrypha has been over the centuries.  Not only have these books inspired homilies, meditations, and liturgical forms, but poets, dramatists, composers, and artists have drawn freely upon them for subject matter.  Even the discovery of the New World was due in part to the influence of a passage from 2 Esdras upon Christopher Columbus.  Although erroneously interpreted, this verse played a significant part in his discovery of the New World.


“On the third day you commanded the waters to be gathered together in a seventh part of the earth; six parts you dried up and kept so that some of them might be planted and cultivated and be of service before you.”  (2 Esdras 6:42)


These words led Columbus to reason that, if only one-seventh of the earth’s surface is covered with water, the ocean between the west coast of Europe and the east coast of Asia could be no great width and might be navigated in a few days with a fair wind.  It was partly by quoting this verse from what was regarded as an authoritative book that Columbus managed to persuade King Ferdnando and Queen Isabela of Spain to provide the necessary financial support for his voyage.


At one time these stories were popular and the images associated with them immediately discernable.  But, today, many of the stories from the Apocrypha, like the books themselves, are not universally recognized.  Yet, there are three stories from the Apocrypha which occur in the arts much more frequently than any others: Susanna, Judith, and scenes from Tobit.  As a result, these three works appear disproportionately in our culture and will receive the most coverage on this web page, although reference to others is occasionally made.



The Apocrypha & English Literature -- Sometime during either the ninth or the 10th century, an unknown English poet turned the story of Judith into an epic of 12 cantos, transforming at the same time the heroine into a Christian.  It is believed that the poem – titled The Lady of the Mercians -- was written to celebrate the prowess of Queen Æthelflaed, who like Judith, delivered her people from the fury of invaders, in this case, the Danes. 


Likewise, during the 14th and 15th centuries, a poem called The Pistill [Epistle] of Swete Susan circulated in Scotland.  Written in stanzas of 13 lines and characterized by an unusual combination of alliteration and rhyme, the apocryphal story of Susanna was adorned with many imaginative details by the author, thought to have been a certain Huchown of Ayrshire in western Scotland. 


It is not known how well acquainted Shakespeare was with the Apocrypha; however, we do know that two of his daughters bore the names of two of the Apocrypha’s chief heroines -- Susanna and Judith.  Of greater significance, however, is the fact that allusions to nearly 80 passages from 11 books of the Apocrypha have been identified in Shakespeare’s plays. 



The Apocrypha & American Literature -- Noteworthy among American writers who have drawn upon the Apocrypha for themes as well as subject matter was Longfellow.  His New England Tragedies contains references to 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the chief episodes of the courageous Maccabean uprising are included in his poetic dramatization, Judas Maccabaeus. 



The Apocrypha & Music -- One fine example of musical inspiration drawn from the Apocrypha appears in the exalted hymn of thanksgiving, Nun danket alle Gott (“Now Thank We All Our God”), written by Martin Rinkart circa 1636 when the devastating Thirty Years War was nearing its end.  Dependent upon Martin Luther’s translation of Sirach 50:22-24, two stanzas of the hymn show the amount of borrowing (shown in italics):


“Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who, from our mother’s arms,
Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today. 
O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts

And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.”


Also traceable to the Apocrypha are ideas included in the familiar Christmas hymn, It Came upon the Midnight Clear.  In the New Testament accounts of the Nativity, nothing is said of the exact time of Jesus’ birth.  However, it seems certain that identifying Midnight as the hour of His birth is based on a passage from The Wisdom of Solomon:


“For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne.” (Wisdom 18:14-15). 


The Apocrypha’s influence can also be heard in many anthems, cantatas, oratorios, and operas, such as Handel’s oratorio Susanna.  Here are the score and lyrics.


Likewise, the story of Judith made its way into the early years of musical theater, with Italian and German operas on this theme written by Salvadori, da Gagliano, Opitz, and Beccau.  And, in the 19th century, the noted Russian pianist and composer, Anton Rubenstein, published The Maccabees, an opera of monumental proportions.



The Apocrypha & Visual Art -- During the Renaissance and later, many painters chose to depict subjects from the Apocrypha.  Almost every large gallery in Europe and America has one or more works of the old masters depicting Judith, Tobit, or Susanna, who were the three most popular subjects from these books.  Besides paintings, artists in a variety of media have also chosen themes from the Apocrypha.  These include mosaics, frescoes, gems, ivories, sarcophagi, enameled plaques, terra cottas, stained glass, manuscript illumination, sculpture, and tapestries.  Some examples may be viewed on the following Web links:


Tobias and the Angel Raphael by Pollaiuolo. 


Susanna and the Elders (1647) by Rembrandt


Susana and the Elders (1617) by Guernico


Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Gewntileschi


Susanna and the Elders (1555-56) by Tintoretto


The Virgin with the Fish by Raphael


Judith Slaying Holofernes by Donatello


Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cranach the Elder ;


Judith 11 (1909) by Klimt



A more contemporary use of Apocryphal themes can also be seen in a 1938 painting by Eugene Berman – titled Tobias and the Angel -- which depicts a scene of two travelers, apparently Hispanic, trudging along what appears to be the Desert Southwest.


Lastly, the more contemporary art of photography has also been used to depict a scene from the Apocrypha.  Photographer Bea Nettles -- in her 1970 work entitled Susanna…Surprised -- spread a photo emulsion on a muslin fabric containing a photo of the artist as Susanna which has been stitched into the fabric within a garden setting. 



Miscellaneous Contributions -- The Apocrypha’s influence on our culture can be observed in the frequent use of such names as Edna, Susanna (or one of its many derivatives, such as Susan, Suzanne, and Sue), Judith (or Judy), Raphael, and Tobias (or Toby).  Also, the word “macabre,” according to several lexicographers, may also be derived ultimately from “Maccabee,” alluding to the grisly and gruesome tortures inflicted upon the Jewish martyrs. 


Likewise, some common expressions and proverbs have come from the Apocrypha.  The sayings, “A good name endures forever” and “You can’t touch pitch without being defiled,” are derived from Sirach 41:13 and Sirach 13:1.  And, the affirmation in 1 Esdras 4:41, “Great is Truth, and strongest of all” (NRSV), or its Latin form, “Magna est veritas et praevalet,” has been used frequently as a motto or maxim in a wide variety of contexts. 





As is evident from the examples and web links provided, the contributions of the Apocyrpha to Western culture are many.  Regardless of whether or not the books are considered canonical by one church or another, the fact is that the stories still convey what the artists or craftsmen intended, namely, to convey values and morals.





Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, “Martha Graham and the Quest for the Feminine in Eve, Lilith, and

Judith” vol. 7, 118-133. Dance As Religious Studies, Doug Adams, et. al., eds. New York: Crossroad, 1990)

Bal, Mieke, “Head Hunting: 'Judith' on the Cutting Edge of Knowledge.” In Journal for the Study

of the Old Testament, 63 (1994): 3-34

Bader, Alfred. The Bible Through Dutch Eyes:  From Genesis Through the Apocrypha.

Milwaukee: Milwaukee Art Center, 1976

Craven, Toni. “Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith.” In Semeia 8 (1977) pp. 75-101

Del Cairo, Francisco, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes,” (1630-5) oil on canvas, John and

Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida 

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New

York: Oxford University Press, 1986

Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem.  “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.” Jerusalem: Keter Publishing

House, 1971

Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem. “Susanna and the Elders.” Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House,


Encyclopaedia Judaica Jerusalem. “Tobit, Book of.” Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995 

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989

Graham, Martha, “Judith”, dance (1955 revised, 1962/1970)

Griffith, D.W., “Judith of Bethulia” (1913) film (58 min)

Heimann, Heidi.  The Bible in Art: Miniatures, Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures Inspired by the

Old Testament (from the Notes on the Plates).  London: Paidon Press, 1956

Held, Julius S. Rembrandt and the Book of Tobit (The Gehenna Essays in Art, Vol IV).

Northampton, Massachusetts: The Gehenna Press, 1964

Nickelsburg, George W.E. Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical

and Literary Introduction.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981

Novotny, Fritz and Johannes Dobai. Gustav Klimt.  Salzburg: Verlag Galerie Welz, 1967

Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. New York: Crescent Books, 1991

Rossi, Filippo. Art Treasures of the Uffizi and Pitti. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1957

van Rijn, Rembrandt. “Judith and Holofernes,” (c. l652). Meso di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy

“Frescoes and Murals.” In Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: KTAV Publishing House,


Unknown.  Lace, cut work, and needle lace, “Lace border illustration of Judith severing head of

Holofernes” (c.1600). Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum 

Unknown. Flemish Gothic Tapestry, “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (c.1525). University of

Montana Museum of Fine Arts, Missoula, Montana

Weinbren, Grahame. “Sonata, interactive conflation between ‘Judith’ (Bible) and ‘The Kreutzer’

(Tolstoy)” (1998)


Author of this page: Oscar Seara
Copyright is claimed jointly by the author, the instructor, and Nashotah House, 2001.
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This page last modified 20 August 2001.