As I mentioned in a previous blog post here, I taught a course this semester called Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture. It seemed to go really well, with some great student engagement and class discussions, not to mention a plethora of fabulous images to pore over each week. And, as the semester is drawing to an end, I thought it would be good to share some of the students’ work with you, so that you get a sense of how they have started to use visual exegesis in their reading of the biblical texts. Over the next few weeks, then, I’ll be posting various essays by the students to showcase some of the creative ways that they have been engaging with the Bible and visual culture.
To start us off, here is an essay by one of our visiting students this semester – Anna Alexander is on exchange from New College School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and throughout the semester, made a fabulous contribution to the class. Here, she talks about that classical biblical femme fatale Salome and her depiction by late 19th-early 20th Century British artist Aubrey Beardsley. Hope you enjoy.
How can Aubrey Beardsley’s depictions of Salome be seen as a radical departure from the tradition of her visual representation?
The figure of Salome is iconic and recognisable worldwide: an image of a beautiful woman, kissing a decapitated head. However, what is so interesting about the figure of Salome is that she is an invisible woman. The origins of Salome lie in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, where she is unnamed and a peripheral character. So why and how has Salome become such a striking visual image and, moreover, a visual image which is of very little relevance to the original story? Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome can be, I argue, seen as a radical departure from the tradition of visual representations of Salome, as well as directly critiquing and exposing the narcissism integral to the mythic representation of this marginal biblical character.
The original source of Beardsley’s illustrations can be seen as rooted within the parallel biblical passages of Mark 6:21-29 and Matthew 14:6-11. Within both stories ‘the daughter of Herodias’ is told to dance for Herod, which pleases him so much he publically promises to give her anything ‘unto the half of my kingdom’ (Mark 6:23). In both passages the unnamed daughter then asks he mother what to request, who instructs her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is then bound by his word, presently acquiescing to her request. What is of tantamount importance when reading this text in light of Beardsley’s visual depiction of the story is that Salome is unnamed. We only know her to be Salome thanks to the works of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
Additionally, I would like to point out the contentious nature of this story as Amanda Riter points out in ‘Villain or Victim: Transforming Salome through Adaptation’, by explaining the conflicting reports of this source. Scholar Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews attributes the death of John the Baptist not to Salome or Herodias, but to Herod who feared he might use his popularity to overthrow him (Riter, 19). This essay focuses on the interpretation of the biblical text, but I believe it important to point out confusion of events resulting in John’s death, especially considering there is an account which completely omits Salome hence ridding her of any culpability. It is interesting therefore that such a mysterious and seeming invisible woman, whose contribution to the death of John is questionable, has become an extraordinarily visible and visual representation of a femme fatale in contemporary culture.
The history of Salome’s visual representation spans centuries, and the manner of her depiction wildly varies from being, as a dancer the ‘ideal subject for depicting the beauty of the human form’ (Bucknell, 504) in the 16th century, to a heavily sexualised predatory female figure. Aubrey Beardsley’s artworks can be seen as the most radical interpretation of this figure. Whilst Salome had already moved from being a background character in the biblical story to occupying a central role in the interpretations of the story, Beardsley and Wilde’s collaborative venture transformed Salome from an ‘exquisite caricature’ (Gilbert, 142) to a figure with an ‘empathetic dimension’ (143).
I shall be examining Beardsley’s works ‘John and Salome’, ‘The stomach dance’ and the ‘Eyes of Herod’. These images are visual adaptations of the story, but where adaptations are traditionally ‘meant to trigger the Viewers memory of a familiar story through the use of a single static image’ (Riter, 20), the recognisability of these famous artworks, would only call Salome to mind of a contemporary audience, for they can be seen to be vastly ‘irrelevant’ to the actual story. So this begs the question: why has this ‘irrelevant’ image of Salome prevailed in contemporary consciousness?
This is perhaps because it is offers an incredibly self-aware depiction of the archetypal femme fatale nature of the figure of Salome, as well as boldly exposing the extent to which her visibility and mythical character are born out of a history of male anxiety of the power of women, through his heavily stylised and fantastical work.
Salome’s perceived power is not only depicted as being rooted in her sexuality, but as Brad Bucknell points out it is this coupled with her command of ‘the Word’ which is traditionally reserved for men. Bucknell highlights how although Salome is unnamed – unlike her mother Herodias – she is given a voice and is able to address Herod, also unlike Herodias. The emphasis on oaths in the story is crucial as it is the power of oaths (The Word) which initially keeps Herod from killing John and instead imprisoning him, and it is the power of Herod’s public oath, that means he must fulfil Salome’s gruesome request. Thus, ‘the power of the word is inverted and turned back upon its possessors, the prophecy and the power of the tetrarch’ (505): essentially Salome undermines the complete authority of the patriarch. Therefore Salome is an incredibly powerful and threatening figure, as not only does she possess a powerful feminine sexuality, but also a masculine command of the word which she uses to kill a man.
This idea of a power of androgyny is explored in Beardsley’s work in ‘Salome and John’ and ‘The Eyes of Herod’. In ‘Salome and John’, both figures share the same indistinguishable gender in their facial features, and could both be male or female, if it were not for her exposed breasts. Additionally in ‘The Eyes of Herod’ Salome appears to be more masculine, if it were not for her naked breasts. In both these images Salome therefore can be seen as simultaneously embodying the power inherent in males and the sexual power of the female. Moreover in ‘The Eyes of Herod’ Salome is above Herod thus illustrating her superior power her androgyny instils her with, making her the ultimate threat to the patriarch.
Ultimately however, her power is traditionally seen to be rooted in her sexuality, which is emphasised in the manner of the dance she performs: that of the seven veils. Again, this interpretation of the dance is completely imagined, as the source gives no indication of the nature of her dance only that ‘it pleased Herod’ (Mark 6:23). The reinterpretation to that of the seven veils indicates the cultural influences of the fin de siècle in which Beardsley was working, namely that of orientalism. By transforming the dance into an exotic sexual striptease, Beardsley heightens Salome’s mythical sexual potency, whilst also exacerbating a sexual perversity, as she is performing to her step-father/uncle.
In ‘The Stomach Dance’ Salome is depicted levitating off the ground, with flowers and moons swirling around her. This heightens the image of Salome as some sort of enchantress, whilst her eyes, boldly staring forwards, imply complicity and assertion of her actions. This is a woman commanding the power of her sexuality. In the corner of the picture is a grotesque goblin playing an instrument. This is of course, completely unrelated to the story of Salome and gives the picture a fantastical quality. Yelena Primovac in ‘Illustrating Wilde: An examination of Aubrey Beardsley’s interpretation of Salome’ sees ‘Herod’s lechery embodied in the grotesque “drooling dwarf”’ (victorianweb.org), thus implying the presence of Herod’s gaze within the picture.
The presence of the male gaze is fundamental to the myth of Salome, and is explored within Beardsley’s works. From the Bible story itself, Salome’s inception is only possible through the gaze of Herod – she is an invisible woman made visible when Herod sees her dancing. This invisible figure has been made visible over centuries of artist’s depictions: she does not exist without her visuality and visibility. Bucknell argues that Beardsley sought to highlight the solipsism of the gaze and its influence on the creation of Salome. In this sense Bucknell argues that Beardsley and Wilde both sought to expose how the figure of Salome had been created and imagined through artists, and therefore are inseparable to their creators. The idea that the gaze is solipsistic showcases an impossibility to look without projecting one’s own image onto the subject. This is most boldly presented in ‘The Eyes of Herod’ where Herod’s face resembles that of Oscar Wilde himself. It is through elements such as these, combined with anachronistic and fantastical features that Beardsley can be seen to be ‘implicitly critiquing such myth making by exposing the solipsism of gaze’ (Bucknell, 516), and revealing the narcissism present in all representations of Salome.
Therefore, because the images are so removed from any genuine source knowledge or objective reality at all, Beardsley is able to explore how Salome is a fundamentally constructed character, only existing and made visible by the male gaze. Therefore any notions of Salome being the ultimate femme fatale, are ultimately critiqued as being a projection of the creator’s anxiety towards such a potentially powerful female, and ironically it is by endowing Salome with the embodiment of this male anxiety, which has ensured her continuing existence and re-imagination within contemporary arts, arguably making her a contemporary icon of female power.
Beardsley, Aubrey. ‘The Eyes of Herod’. Salome. Illustration for Oscar Wilde. 4th ed. 1936. Print
Beardsley, Aubrey. ‘Salome and John’. Salome. Illustration for Oscar Wilde. 4th ed. 1936. Print
Beardsley, Aubrey. ‘The Stomach Dance’ Salome. Illustration for Oscar Wilde. 4th ed. 1936. Print
Bucknell, Brad. ‘On “Seeing” Salome’. ELH. Vol. 60, No. 2. pp. 503-526. 1993. Print
Gilbert, Elliot L. “Tumult of Images”: Wilde, Beardsley, and “Salome”’. Victorian Studies. Vol. 26, No. 2. pp. 133-159. 1983. Print.
Primorac, Yelena. ‘Illustrating Wilde: An examination of Aubrey Beardsley’s interpretation of Salome’. The Victorian Web. 2009. Victorianweb.org. Electronic Resource.
Riter, Amanda. ‘Villain or Victim: Transforming Salome through Adaptation’. Interdisciplinary Humanities. Vol. 31. Pp. 18-31. 2014. Print.