Student work: More on Salome

Today’s student contribution takes us back to look at that most colourful character from the gospel traditions – Herodias’s daughter Salome. The author of this piece is Sarah Pearce, who is in her final semester of studying for a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Theology conjoint degree, majoring in English and Biblical Studies. Sarah is a very talented writer, as you will see, and we are delighted that she is hoping to continue her studies with us next semester in the postgraduate Honours programme.

Salome in Art

by

Sarah Pearce

Salome in art through the ages

In the Middle Ages, images of Salome tended to focus on the dynamism of her dance, which had so impressed the king. She came to be known as ‘la sauterelle,’ from the way she contorted and twisted her body in medieval images, a young, fully dressed girl bent backwards or upside-down (Apostolos-Cappadona 2009). During this time, dance was an accepted part of church liturgy. In these depictions she is an acrobat – she is not sexualised nor is there an explicit effort on the part of the artist to depict her in an overtly negative or bloodthirsty light.

Dance of Salome, 13th Century English Psalter
Dance of Salome, 13th Century English Psalter

The Renaissance saw the acrobatic nature of Salome’s dance often remain in images of the young woman, her adolescence also enduring in her physical representations. However, a greater focus on her beauty and a gentle, seductive demeanour also developed. This change was representative of a growing ‘awareness’ of the ever-present threat of female sexuality to men, still latent in this young woman (ibid).

Benozzo Gozzoli, The Dance of Salome (1461-1462)
Benozzo Gozzoli, The Dance of Salome (1461-1462)

By the end of the high Renaissance, moving into the Mannerism, Baroque and Romantic periods, the nature of women began to be dichotomised into the virgin/whore binary due to misogynistic attitudes that seeped through the acutely patriarchal Western societies of the time. Salome represented both sides of the coin: a young royal maiden, yet one so sexually charged in her movement she could bring about the death of a prophet. Combined with the fact that dance was no longer a part of liturgy, the innocence of Salome’s dance began to fade away (ibid).

Peter Paul Rubens, Salome (early 17th Century)
Peter Paul Rubens, Salome (early 17th Century)

And, by the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, Salome had become the archetype femme fatale, whose sexuality, portrayed through her seductive dance, directly resulted in the death of an innocent man. Salome and her mother, collapsed at this time into one character, used her beauty to order the death of a man when offered anything her heart desired: this being the very essence of the femme fatale. As a result, Salome became a favourite topic among Symbolist artists who sought out subjects which represented this theme.

Franz Von Stuck, Salome (1906)
Franz Von Stuck, Salome (1906)

Salome came to be depicted alone, sometimes dancing, and often with a sword or with the head of John the Baptist on a platter (as though she had done the beheading herself).  She is depicted naked, exotically adorned, or bare breasted, with a triumphant, smiling or unfeeling expression. She is therefore shown to be pleased with the fruits of her sexual wiles, which artists depicted as the work of Salome alone, leaving her prompting mother, or grudge-ridden step-father out of the scene.

Salome in Bernardo Luini’s Salome with the head of St John the Baptist (early 16th Century)

Bernardino Luini, Salome with the head of John the Baptist (early 16th Century)
Bernardino Luini, Salome with the head of John the Baptist (early 16th Century)

The young dancer of the gospel traditions (Matt. 14.3-11; Mk 6.17-29) has become integral to the story in artistic reproductions, as though she were the central character within the narrative and often seeming to shoulder the blame alone for John’s execution, as she does in this painting. Yet, Salome comes into the narrative late and her role is described fleetingly in comparison to the amount of space given to Herodias’ grudge in Mark’s account and Herod’s reluctance to execute St John in both accounts. The depiction of this scene is common: the moment when Salome is presented with John the Baptist’s head. In both traditions, the head is bought to the girl on the platter already. Here, the head is placed onto the platter the girl holds as if she might have witnessed the execution and been given the head fresh from its body. Perhaps she waited with her platter ready for the presentation of the decapitated head. Either way, the disembodied arm of the executioner is an eerie touch and breaks with the biblical tradition.

The scene is dark, we cannot see the court or the birthday party described in the text. Nor is Salome dancing or her mother present, prompting her daughter or receiving her request. Salome here averts her face: her expression, mildly troubled with a slightly furrowed brow. Yet I would say that she is surprisingly unmoved and slightly detached for someone receiving the head of an innocent man she just demanded to be killed. There is no horror in her face; her mouth is set and her skin glows, flushed, in stark comparison to St John’s head, pale and yellowing.

This detachment from the horror of the situation reflects the state of her family: one that places very little value on human life. Her grandfather, Herod the great, ordered that all boys under two be murdered in order to try and get one little boy, the baby Jesus (Matt. 2.16). Her stepfather Herod, who was also her uncle, married his brother’s wife (Matt. 14.3). Herod imprisoned an innocent man and without hesitation put him to death (Matt. 14.3, 9-10). The lack of pain in her facial expression and her peaceful gaze depicts her as equally as callous as the rest of her family. This is also present in the text. Offered half the kingdom, Salome instead opts to please her mother at the expense of the life of an innocent man, which comes cheaply with little consideration (Mark 6.22-23). This is particularly evident in Mark’s account where it states that following the request, ‘immediately she rushed back to the king’ asking for his head on a platter ‘at once’ (v.25). The sense of urgency and impulsiveness betrays her lack of concern for the life of another. This is in turn depicted by the way the artist has portrayed her here.

Salome in Gustave Mossa’s Salome, 1901

Gustave Mossa, Salome (1908)
Gustave Mossa, Salome (1908)

Mossa’s depiction of Salome shows the way in which the art of the late 19th to early 20th Century became so fixated on the concept of the femme fatale. The residues of this within the Biblical story of Salome are seized by early 20th Century artists. As a result, depictions of the young dancer came to be a fantasy or myth, so far removed from the Salome of the biblical texts. Here Salome kneels in a child’s cot or nursery, a doll and other remnants of childhood are strewn around her knees. A diaphanous robe drapes around her adolescent body, tucked tight between her legs, exposing her budding breast and left thigh in an alluring fashion. She holds in one hand an ornate sword covered in the blood of her victim and licks it, a consummate femme fatale. The bleeding heads of the Baptiser bloom in a flourish of barbed roses around her, looking down on her, symbolising the nature of the femme fatale, and the thorny danger intrinsic to the enchanting aphrodite. Saint John’s head in the centre of the rose reminds the viewer of the mortal consequences of her beauty.

There is no court, mother or step-father, no dance, nor is there an audience. Nothing from this picture seems to be drawn from the Biblical traditions except the much manipulated character of Herodias’ daughter, a child wildly sexualised. Were the heads of John the Baptist not present, peering lifeless out of the blooms behind her, we would perhaps not be able to recognise the young deviant depicted here as Salome at all. Instead of being a narrative representation of the painting, the painting uses symbols to reveal allegorically what the artist might have believed to be more subliminal elements of the story.

Salome’s character here is both beautiful and bloodthirsty, young and perverse. This depiction of Salome is abject on many levels: the idea of running your tongue down a double edged sword in itself is enough to make us cringe. Yet, Salome licks a man’s blood off the reflective blade. The blood is undried, still fresh and warm enough to run down the sword and drip from the edges. Symbols of innocence lie discarded around the sexually-charged youth. The disjunction of the symbols of childhood next to the exposed and sexually enticing young women adds to the abjection. Altogether, this paints her in a very negative light: an aberrant, wicked young woman, virginal and yet defiled, delicate and yet dangerous.

As aforementioned, it seems that very little of this is drawn from the Biblical accounts. Yet with some imagination, could we say that the urgency in which the young girl rushes back to the king with her request, demanding a head of an innocent man on a platter (Mark 6.25) at once betrays her blood thirst? The demand that the head be presented on a platter could divulge an appetite for blood indeed. The head itself was not enough, nor was a simple execution. Instead in her own words in both the Matthew and Mark narrative, she asks that the head of Saint John be bought to her in a similar way one might request food. So perhaps Mossa touches on this murderous appetite here, symbolically depicting the role of the platter, Salome’s very own addition to her mother’s request, by having Salome literally eat blood, with the freshness of it linking to the sense of urgency in her request for the head in Mark’s rendition of the story.

Comparing the images by Mossa and Luini

Firstly, the Salome in Luini’s portrayal of the scene averts her face from the horror of the decaptiated head. While she doesn’t react as one might expect, she shows some decency and humanity in looking away with perhaps even a sense of guilt in her eyes. Mossa’s Salome on the other hand victoriously licks the blood of her victim with a sense of delight in her face and posture.

Secondly, the differences between these two images are stark, with Luini’s painting following the biblical narrative more closely, depicting the moment in which the young dancer is presented with the head on the platter as requested. The actions of Mossa’s Salome, in a cot with large roses about her will not be found anywhere in the Biblical text. Mossa makes no attempt to follow the Biblical traditions.

Luini’s period is a few centuries from grasping the fetish of the fatal sexaulity of women as it was in Mossa’s. Luini’s depiction comes from a time entrenched in artistic tradition of realism in art to serve didactic and narrational purposes to a largely illiterate audience. This would dictate what art was, limiting artistic licence, ensuring the veracity of the work. It also comes from an overtly religious society, around the time of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, inhibiting the ways an artist could portray a bloodthirsty beauty, demanding a certain level of decency in art.

Mossa’s version comes out of a time of great social upheaval and chaos, following the wars, revolutions and uprisings of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in an increasingly secular society with the first great world war on the horizon. The artist’s dark disillusionment with society is reflected in the way subjects are depicted as being more sinister and ominous than ever before, evident in this very undisguised depiction of blood thirst and loss of innocence.

References:

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. “Imagining Salome, or How La Sauterelle Became La Femme Fatale.” In From the Margins 2: Women of the New Testament and their Afterlives, edited by Christine E. Joynes and Christopher C. Rowland, 190-209. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.

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