Famous Beheadings in History

"Off with his head!" orders England's King Richard III in William Shakespeare's play about unbridled royal ambition.

Throughout history, kings, commoners and even slaves have resorted to beheadings as a method of punishment, a weapon of vengeance and sometimes even a path to emancipation.

Here is a look at some of history's most famous beheadings.

Judith Beheads General Holofernes: The Bible is replete with decapitations. Severed heads are displayed in victory and headless bodies left behind as a mass morality lesson, many of which were illustrated by some of the Western world's greatest artists.

In the Old Testament, a poor Jewish widow named Judith volunteers to deliver her people from an Assyrian siege around the town of Bethulia. Pretending to be an informer against her people, the beautiful Judith enters the Assyrian camp and seduces the military general, Holofernes. She enters his tent, gets him drunk and after he falls asleep, cuts off his head with the help of her maid, Abra. With their mighty commander beheaded at the hands of a woman, the Assyrian troops, shocked by their vulnerability, flee and Bethulia is liberated.

The story of Judith slaying the Assyrian general has been a theme for some of the Western world's most famous Italian painters, including Michelangelo Caravaggio, Artemesia Gentileschi and Donatello.

David Slays Goliath: In one of the best-known stories of the Old Testament, David, a shepherd boy and the youngest of eight sons, offers to fight Goliath, a giant Philistine warrior who was threatening the Israelites.

Armed with a slingshot, five stones, and a belief in God, David advances toward a dismissive Goliath, and hits him between the eyes with a stone. As Goliath falls, David draws out the Philistine warrior's own sword and beheads him. When the Philistines see their once-invincible warrior decapitated, they panic and flee. David carries Goliath's head triumphantly to King Saul's court in Jerusalem and keeps the sword as a spoil of war.

A Michelangelo fresco of David slaying Goliath adorns the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Other artworks include Caravaggio's painting of David holding Goliath's deathly pale head by his hair while the Philistine warrior's expression is frozen in a terrifying scream.

John the Baptist's Head on a Platter: The New Testament has its share of beheadings, too. John the Baptist had the misfortune to end up in King Herod's prison, and the even worse misfortune to have angered Herod's wife. Queen Herodias had first been married to Herod's brother, and John had condemned her new marriage as incestuous. Herodias' daughter, Salome, dances for King Herod, who is so pleased with the performance that he promises to grant the girl anything she wishes. Salome, at her mother's urging, asks for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Herod is upset, but a promise is a promise. The incident has been immortalized in paintings and plays by artists ranging from Caravaggio to Titian to Botticelli to Oscar Wilde.

Imam Hussein, Decapitated at the Battle of Karbala : The slaying of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is one of the pivotal chapters in Islamic history.

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