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


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.


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.

Danger and Desire: More student work

I have another piece of student work for you to enjoy today, this time from Nicole Marais, who is nearing the completion of her BA, in which she is majoring in Media, Film, and TV studies. Nicole has focused on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah, from Judges 16. She first looks at her presentation in a painting from the 19th Century, before turning to consider the ‘Delilah-like’ character of Meredith Johnson in the 1994 movie Disclosure. Nicole’s discussion is fascinating and creative – I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Delilah in visual culture


Nicole Marais

Paul Albert  Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)
Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)

Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)

And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. (Judges 16:19)

The first representation of Delilah we will be looking at is a painting by Paul Albert Rouffio entitled simply Samson and Delilah (1874). This is the moment just before Samson’s hair is shorn and the Philistines capture him and take him away to Gaza.

In Rouffio’s rendition, Delilah is being handed a pair of scissors by a female servant while the Philistine soldiers wait in an alcove for the moment to attack and seize him. This differs from the biblical text where the narrator tells us that Delilah called for ‘a man and she caused him…’ to cut Samson’s hair. (Judges 16:19) Here Delilah is the one to not only deceive Samson by telling the Philistines his secret, she deals the fatal blow by cutting his hair herself.

Again in the text we are not told where this scenario unfolds. (Exum 82) Are we in Delilah’s house? Is this a brothel? Wherever they are here it looks to be a very opulent and decadent setting. The Egyptian art on the walls in the back ground is intriguing. Perhaps a marker of Delilah’s foreignness?

None of the characters in the image engage with the viewer. At first glance Samson captures our eye, his vulnerability is twofold as he lays naked and asleep. I can’t help but feel compassion for this man who, in the glow of post coital bliss, has no idea that in an instant his world and legacy will change forever. The image serves a dual purpose too. While Delilah’s nakedness is intended to be a pleasure for the male gaze to behold, Samson’s vulnerability and the viewer’s knowledge of things to come serves as a warning against the power of female seduction. (Exum 78) If a great man like Samson can fall prey to the evil wiles of a woman’s sexual prowess, what hope do ‘normal’ men have?

The biblical text says only that Delilah ‘made him sleep on her lap’. There is no evidence in the bible to point to their love making, yet Rouffio (and countless other artists before and since him) implies this in his interpretation of the text. In Samson and Delilah shown above, the state of undress of both Samson and Delilah as well as the crumpled sheets of the bed are more than a subtle hint to what has come before. If that were not enough, the pomegranates and figs next to Delilah’s bed are themselves symbols of Delilah’s heightened sexuality.

But who was Samson to Delilah? Did she fear him, love him, loathe him? Or was she just a vindictive woman set on destroying a great man? The Biblical text says simply that she was a woman that Samson loved;

‘And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.’ (Judges 16:4)

She obviously knew of his love for her;

‘How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me?’ (Judges 16:15)

But there is no mention of her love for him. Indeed her actions lead us to believe the opposite. She manipulates him into telling her the secret of his power, betrays his confidence to the Philistines and hands him over to his enemy, without a hint of remorse. (Or at least there is no indication that she feels any in the text)

I don’t think Rouffio was in any doubt of whether she loved him or not. Her facial expression in his painting is one of smug victory. A woman content in the knowledge that she has succeeded in her task. She appears to be very assured of herself, confident that he will not awake before she cuts his hair and knowing that when the deed is done she will be a wealthy woman. Or, if the decadent room in which this is set is indeed in her home, and not a brothel like I suspect, an even wealthier woman.

So, what is next for Delilah? After she delivers Samson to the Philistines, she disappears from the biblical text. Does she become a member of the Philistine elite? Or does she take her silver and go home? The décor in the back ground of the painting leads me to believe that she is not from those parts and will most likely return to her home, be that Egypt or Mesopotamia (?) as a wealthy single woman who has no need for a man to look after her. Perhaps she even becomes the Madam of her own brothel…

Delilah-like Demi Moore as Meredith Johnson in Disclosure (1994)

Demi Moore in Disclosure
Demi Moore in Disclosure

Dan Clanton argues in Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music that there is a perpetual negative rendering of Delilah in literature, film and contemporary music. (Clanton 65) While Clanton focused on representations of Delilah in music, I will look at how Delilah, as the quintessential femme fatale, is given new life through Demi Moore’s portrayal of Meredith Johnson in Barry Levinson’s 1994 film Disclosure.

The film focuses on a week in the life of Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas). He has to fight to save his job after his new boss, and former lover, accuses him of sexual harassment following her failed attempt to seduce him. (Although, it must be said that director Levinson took a very ‘Clinton era’ approach to what constitutes sexual relations in this scene.)

Like the biblical text there is a three way split in the power play between the characters of the film: Meredith the femme fatale (Delilah), Tom the victim of the temptress (Samson) and the men that use a deviant female to ensnare their captive, in this case the board members of Didgicom (the Philistines). (Clanton 66)

Demi Moore is the ultimate Delilah incarnate. A femme Fatale that uses her sexual prowess to ensnare an unsuspecting man and thereby endeavouring to destroy him. However, unlike the biblical text where the all-powerful Samson is undone by Delilah, Tom Sanders manages to outwit Meredith and come out on top. Meredith is fired from her position of Vice President and Tom is lauded as the architect of a merger that will ensure his position at the company.

It is unclear what Meredith’s reasons are for wanting to destroy Tom in such a grandiose manner. In Judges 16, Delilah agrees to help the Philistines when they offer her a handsome financial reward in return. However in Disclosure, Meredith’s justification for setting up and betraying her former lover remains ambiguous. Could it be that she is a woman scorned, who after 10 years still wants revenge for a love affair that ended badly? Or is she seduced by the idea of power? Does she want to be the top woman in a man’s world? Meredith admits as much to Tom in the beginning of the film when she tries to rekindle their romantic relationship.

‘Now you got the power. You got something I want.’

Like Delilah in the book of Judges, we are not sure what will become of Meredith after she is booted from Digicom. She tells Tom that she has already been approached by 10 head hunters in the hour since her public shaming at a press conference. Here Levinson insinuates that she will land on her feet. Like Delilah of the bible she will not be too severely punished for her actions, for which she too shows no remorse.

Meredith Johnson in Levinson’s Disclosure and the Delilah of Rouffio’s Samson and Delilah are separated by a hundred and twenty years, yet have much in common. They are both used as pawns in facilitating the power play of a man’s world. Delilah is used by the Philistines to ensnare Samson and Meredith by the male members of the board at Digicom. They are both aware of their part in this power struggle and comply willingly.

Delilah and Meredith reinforce the ideology that women are responsible for men’s undoing and are a threat to the fundamentals of a patriarchal society. (Anders 97) A world in which hetro-normative ideals of procreation and the family unit are to be preserved above all else. Women who challenge these ideals with their desire to forge a life for themselves that is not guided by the moral compass that a husband and a family will give them, are dangerous.

What is interesting to me is that the Delilah of Rouffio’s painting seems to wield more power that Meredith does in Disclosure. This is of concern because Disclosure was set in the 1990’s, a time where gender roles were being questioned and women were being given opportunities that had since eluded them. In the end Levinson’s film, maintains the current gender status quo. Women are either sexually charged vamps who use manipulation to control and destroy men, or they are insipid and dowdy, only allowed to succeed if they put a lid on their sexuality so they can access their brains. A very disappointing rendering of Delilah indeed.

Primary Sources:

Rouffio, Paul Albert Samson and Delilah, 1874.

Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Demi Moore, Michael Douglas. Warner Brothers. 1995. Film.

Secondary Sources:

Anderson, Lesley Cecile Marie. ‘The Femme Fatale: A Manifestation of Patriarchal Fears’ UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project. University of British Columbia, 1995.

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-78. New York: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Exum, Cheryl. Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Federick Pickersgill’s Delilah. Bible Art Gallery. Edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

Danger and Desire: Student work on the book of Ruth (part 2)

Following on from our last blog post, here is another student essay on the book of Ruth in art. Nevin Govindasamy is another of our fabulous students in Theology – as well as studying for his Bachelor of Theology, he has also completed a Bachelor of Arts degree, where he majored in Media, Film, and Television Studies. Nevin plans to graduate later this year and hopes to continue his studies at postgraduate level. Below is one of his essays for the Danger and Desire course, where he considers Émile Lévy’s painting, Ruth and Naomi, from an LGBTI perspective.


Émile Lévy’s Ruth and Naomi (1859)


Nevin Govindasamy

Recent biblical interpretations have stated that the Book of Ruth provides a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Émile Lévy’’s Ruth and Naomi (1859) gives subtle encouragement for a supportive LGBTI message. At first Levy’s painting appears simple to be a simple depiction of Ruth 4:13-17 with a young family playing with their child. Yet, there are subtle features in Levy’s interpretation that suggest that Ruth and Naomi shared an intimate relationship. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Boaz in the background of the painting is also an extremely important element in redefining his role in the narrative. These visual characteristics affect the way in which the relationships in the Book of Ruth are to be understood. Though Ruth and Naomi is a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, Lévy’s interpretation, much like the text itself, works in a subtle way to illustrate its message. With society’s changing attitude towards the LGBTI community, it is important to establish an inclusive LGBTI theology. The Book of Ruth provides a suitable platform for reinterpreting stereotypical and congealed biblical attitudes towards its LGBTI members.

Émile Lévy, Ruth and Naomi (1859)

One of the keys to understanding the Book of Ruth lies with the interpretation of the final scene (Ruth 4:13-17) – as depicted in Ruth and Naomi. There are several subtle elements in Ruth 4:14-17 which suggest that the women were in a committed same-sex relationship. The language used by the women of Bethlehem to describe the strength of the relationship between Ruth and Naomi is deliberately overemphasised and emotional. Their speech is important as it is the only place in the text where the word ‘love’ is used, but also, more significantly to show “that others in the story world recognize Ruth’s love, and gives us perspective on Naomi’s point of view” (Exum 1996, 140). While Lévy downplays the original intensity of the text, the feminine atmosphere, the main subjects of the painting, as well as the title itself, are used to illustrate this love. Although there is an unnamed third woman in Lévy’s painting, depicting Ruth, Naomi and Obed together during the final scene connotes that they are a non-traditional family. By focusing on the familial nature of the final scene both Lévy and the women of Bethlehem recognise that “Ruth’s relationship to Naomi has been life-giving – procreative” (West 2006, 194).

Casting Ruth and Naomi’s relationship as procreative guides the way in which the audience interprets the preceding narrative.   In particular, the associations with procreation draw attention to the narrative links with Genesis 2:24 through the use of the ‘cling’ (dabaq) in Ruth 1:24. Genesis 2:24 uses ‘cling’ to describe the marriage husband and wife and ultimately the procreative nature of the two ‘becoming one flesh.’ A further parallel to Genesis 2:24 occurs in Ruth 2:11, where Boaz notes that Ruth has ‘left her mother and father’ to be with Naomi. Scott Callaham notes that “though ‘father and mother’ is a stock phrase, only Ruth 2:11 and Genesis 2:24 employ it as the object of the verb” (2012, 193). These features infer that Ruth and Naomi’s ‘clinging’ should be understood as a de-facto marriage. The subtlety of the Book of Ruth’s intertextual references is paralleled by Lévy through a series of subtle visual allegories. First, the use of red identifies and links Ruth and Naomi who occupy the foreground of the picture.However, more significantly, the older woman – taken to be Naomi is also wearing a gold ring on her finger – a synchronic insertion with direct references to marriage between the two women.

Understanding that Ruth and Naomi’s relationship is a de-facto marriage means reassessing Boaz’s function in the narrative. Although it appears that Ruth 2 establishes Boaz as a paragon of patriarchal authority, Boaz’s actions demonstrate, rather, that he is also the first defender, or protector of the LGBTI community. Boaz is the first outsider to acknowledge ‘all that Ruth had done for Naomi,’ and also his hopes that God would ‘reward her for her deeds’ (Ruth 2:11-12). Boaz uses his influence to ensure that Ruth is protected from harassment, (Ruth 2:9) and instructs that extra grain be provided for her (2:16). Mona West states that Boaz’s behaviour “goes above and beyond the law to ensure that those less fortunate in [his] community are provided for” (2006, 192). His actions ensure that Ruth and Naomi would survive without ‘gleaning in another field’ (Ruth 2:8) and risking their relationship. Lévy’s depiction of Boaz in Ruth and Naomi reinforces the notion that his character performs the role of a guardian to the women. Boaz stands as a sentinel in the background of the painting keeping a watchful eye over the family in the foreground. Furthermore, Boaz is holding a curved shepherd’s staff – one of the most recognizable symbols of religious care in the Christian community. This role of protector elides with the theme of the survival of marginalized, vulnerable women in adversarial environments (Ruth 1:1, 5).

The implications of Boaz’s characterization redefine the purposes of his marriage to Ruth. Ruth 2 foregrounds the sentiment that Ruth’s marriage to Boaz (Ruth 3-4.1) is a colluded survival strategy that does not compromise her relationship with Naomi, but that it provides “protection from both violence and poverty” (Koosed 2012, 55). While this marriage between Ruth and Boaz is the only one directly described in the text, its initiation is orchestrated by the women (Ruth 3:1-5) “to create a situation in which [Naomi], Boaz and Ruth can form their own family to provide security and well-being” (West 2006, 193). Furthermore, terms of the marriage are discussed within a legal framework, rather than out of romance or love. The ‘engagement scene’ on the threshing room floor (Ruth 3:9-13) Ruth proposes that Boaz act as a ‘redeemer’ (go’el) according to the laws of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-10). Boaz agrees to the legal details of Ruth’s marriage proposal, as “he vows to look into the permissibility of the situation and to act as her next of kin only if he can” (Wojcik 1985, 150).

Although Boaz agrees to marry Ruth, Jennifer Koosed notes that he is not the one in charge in the relationship and marriage out of erotic love is not the goal (2012, 53). The scene at the city gate (Ruth 4) reinforces Boaz’s attitude as a legalistic protector, outside the bounds of a sexual relationship rather than romantic suitor to Ruth. First, Boaz negotiates the terms of marriage over the tenures of landownership (Ruth 4:3). Subsequently, once the terms are settled he states that his motivations were driven by ‘maintaining Elimelech’s name,’ and not love (Ruth 4:10). Boaz’s actions give legal legitimacy to his relationship and role as a protector of the women. The morning after their engagement, Boaz notes that it may be controversial for an unmarried man and woman to be seen together (Ruth 3:14) – even if it is a relationship providing social welfare (Ruth 3:15). Therefore, Boaz’s formal marriage to Ruth allows him to continue to protect the informal marriage between Ruth and Naomi free from any potential controversies or misunderstandings. Furthermore, Boaz pulls Ruth and Naomi from the margins of society back into the community when he provides them with a legitimate child.

Biblical commenters agree that Ruth’s declaration (Ruth 1:16-17) is one of the most profound declarations of love – unparalleled in the Bible. Despite the fact that Ruth’s declaration is directed towards someone of the same sex, the Bible is often used as the platform for conservative Christians to justify a stance against the LBGTI community. Furthermore, Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s largest denomination, publicly stated in 2013 that he was “shocked” at a proposed Maltese law that would allow LBGTI couples to adopt children (Rayman 2013). These positions often rely on the most explicit verses in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to validate their position. However, Lesleigh Cushing Stahlberg notes “that there is no good reason to conceive of the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality as a series of dictates that exist in isolation from other statues or stories” (2008, 471). The Book of Ruth not only celebrates and protects the love between two women, but also it “offers a model for defiance of biblical law and for sanctioning forbidden marriages” – all with the approval and blessing of the Lord (Ruth 4:13) (474).

The Book of Ruth is an excellent source to build a positive theology for the LGBTI community. Much like Ruth and Naomi members of the LGBTI community are often at the margins of society. Furthermore, the LGBTI community continues to be actively discriminated by the Christian community due to superficial or stereotypical understanding of the Bible. Yet, the Book of Ruth provides direct biblical evidence that undermines such a position. Not only do Ruth and Naomi survive in a patriarchal society, their relationship is protected, praised and legitimized by their community. Emile Levy’s Ruth and Naomi illustrates the loving and committed nature of their relationship – culminating in the creation of a LBGTI family. Levy enriches the characterization of Boaz as a protector by showing his character as a dutiful sentinel who continues to watch over the women. Positive LGBTI Interpretations in popular culture, such as Ruth and Naomi, are essential in affecting a substantial change in attitude within the Christian community. As with many issues in society, more social gains and losses are made through the ideas circulated online and in the popular media than from scholarly publications or dictates from the pulpit.

Works Cited

Callaham, Scott. “But Ruth Clung to Her: Textual Constraints on Ambiguity in Ruth 1:14.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no.2 (2012): 179-97.

Cushing-Stahlberg, Lesleigh. “Modern Day Moabites: The Bible and the Debate About Same-Sex Marriage.” Biblical Interpretation 16 (2008): 442-75.

Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot and Painted : Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 1996.

Koosed, Jennifer L.. Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament : Gleaning Ruth : A Biblical Heroine and Her Afterlives. Columbia, SC, USA: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.

Rayman, Noah. “Report: Pope Francis ‘Shocked’ by Same-Sex Adoption Proposal.” Time Magazine, December 30, 2013. Accessed April 14, 2015.

West, Mona. “Ruth.” In The Queer Bible Commentary, edited by Deryn Guest et. al.. London, UK: SCM Press, 2006.

Wojcik, Jan. “Improvising Rules in the Book of Ruth.” PMLA 100, no. 2 (1985): 145-53.

Danger and Desire: Student Work on the Book of Ruth (part 1)

In a previous blog post, I indicated that I would be sharing student work from our course Danger and Desire: The Bible in Visual Culture. Today, I’d like to present the first of two student essays that look at images based on the Hebrew Bible’s book of Ruth. The author of this essay is Kesaia Tapueluelu, one of our star students taking her Bachelor of Theology here at the University of Auckland. Kesaia focuses on two artists who present scenes from Ruth, considering in particular the way that the gender and sexuality of the characters in this narrative are explored within these visual interpretations of the text.

Ruth and Naomi


Kesaia Tapueluelu

Every time I would read or have the story of Ruth read to me, I always thought about how Naomi must have been the best mother-in-law for Ruth not to leave her. The mother and daughter in-law duo tells an intriguing story of the journey that they embark on in order to survive their tragic circumstances. Loyalty is a recurring theme in this biblical text which highlights a personality trait of Ruth; however, any loyalty from Naomi is not clearly evident. For this essay I have chosen two pieces of art that I believe highlight the relationship between the women (especially the aspect of love and loyalty) and the roles that they played throughout their story for their survival; Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi painting and Nicolas Poussin’s Summer (Ruth and Boaz). Both art works will offer a depiction of Naomi and Ruth’s relationship and further allow for an interpretation of the biblical story.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Ruth and Naomi (1920)

In the cultural context of the time in which the book was authored women who were widowed held the lowest socio-economic status. They had nothing and could not get anything because all odds were against them because there was no male figure present to look after them. Philip Hermogenes Calderon’s Ruth and Naomi offer a visual interpretation of the text that raises many questions on first glance: who are the two embracing, Ruth and Naomi, or Ruth and Boaz? Might it be romantic or even erotic? (Exum, 1996, 129) What is Calderon suggesting with this picture? The picture is not clear about who are embracing, whether it is Boaz and Ruth or Ruth and Naomi. A clue in Calderon’s painting is the presence of the third character looking on from the two embracing. To unravel an understanding of this piece we need to comparae the biblical text to the painting to give possible clarity. When we apply a scene which includes a third party there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that this scene could be an embrace between Ruth and Boaz with Naomi looking on and the second possibility is that the two embracing are Ruth and Naomi and Orpah is the one looking on. The biblical text shows no evidence of Ruth and Boaz embracing where Naomi is present; as a matter fact, there is no scene in which all three characters are together at the same time. The second possibility is more favourable because the third character is carrying some form of luggage which suggests traveling. (Koosed 2011, 53). This then suggests that the scene is a depiction of when Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their homes (Ruth 1.8-14). In the biblical text it is noted that Ruth clings onto Naomi as Orpah leaves (1.14), this is probably the moment that Calderon is trying to capture in his painting, which depicts his interpretation of the biblical story. Yet, the picture is ambivalent, obscure and very confusing. Naomi is masculine looking and the embrace between her and Ruth is very passionate, romantic and even erotic. J. Cheryl Exum wrote about this painting, asking the question, is this really Naomi? (1996, 129). Exum’s question echoes the questions from those posed by the women in Bethlehem when they could not recognise Naomi (Ruth 1:19). This question can play on the idea Calderon may have wanted his audience to question in the picture; the questions about gender and his use of an androgynous figure (ibid, 132). Calderon’s painting can be seen as the artist’s way of delegating, in this sense, the male responsibilities of the relationship onto Naomi and by doing so he blurs a definitive gender on Naomi. The role in which Naomi takes on is the role of carer and provider for Ruth – the masculine role, hence her androgyny. Calderon was a part of a group called the St Johns Wood Clique (a group of Victorian artists) and he specialised in romantic and dramatic scenes from the Bible (Elkan). It is also said that Calderon’s paintings were never straightforward and many were sexually ambivalent. This is very fitting considering the romantic gesture that is portrayed in Naomi and Ruth’s embrace. In a blog post by Caroline Blyth on Auckland Theology and Religious Studies (19 December 2014), she writes about her thoughts on this piece, and her concluding thoughts are what interested me. Blyth states that rather than dampening the picture by stating that Ruth is embracing Boaz, she would rather leave the two women unambiguously enjoying their embrace, which in turn celebrates their intense love for each other; Blyth then concludes by quoting Ruth’s remarks to Naomi (Ruth 1.16-17). When Blyth concluded with Ruth’s remarks it evoked a sense of marriage vows, highlighting the intensity of love that she mentions. Maybe it is this great love that Calderon is trying to express through his painting, an intense love where Ruth vows loyalty to Naomi like the vows of a marriage. To further clarify, I do not believe Calderon’s picture highlights a bond of homosexuality nor of heterosexuality; however it is about the intense love that both characters mutually express as seen in his picture (Exum 1996, 135).

Nicholas Poussin, The Summer (Ruth and Boaz), 1664

The second piece of art that amply applies a stimulating depiction of the biblical text is from Nicolas Poussin, Summer (Ruth and Boaz). The beauty in this art is seen in the vast landscape of the outdoors. It is said that the landscape is a depiction of the divine presence amongst human activity (Encyclopedia of Art). Poussin may have painted this scene to imply the presence of God as the conductor of both Ruth’s life and the events that are going to happen. This picture shows Ruth kneeling before Boaz amongst the field of workers. What is intriguing about this picture is that it shows Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Is Poussin trying to implement the same or a similar idea to Calderon? Although Poussin’s picture of Ruth and Boaz was painted before Calderon’s painting of Ruth and Naomi, the masculinity that Ruth takes on may also denote here an aspect of her role in her relationship with Naomi. In this scene, Ruth seems to take from Naomi the masculine role and places it on herself to care for Naomi; by doing so she goes to the fields to glean after the harvesters to provide food for both of them. In the words of Boaz (when he replies to Ruth about his favouritism on her), “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband” (2.11a). These words, specifically “what you have done,” highlight the care for Naomi implying Ruth’s responsibility towards Naomi. Although I have mentioned earlier that Naomi took on the masculine role in the relationship in her initial care of Ruth, it is here in this scene that Ruth takes on this role in place of Naomi. Depicting Ruth as a masculine figure before Boaz in this painting suggests that Ruth came before Boaz in her role as carer and provider. Then further in the biblical story, Boaz takes this role in the relationship from Ruth by making her his wife. It is then that Boaz becomes the ultimate carer for both women, taking from them the role as provider. The women’s search for survival is now over in Ruth’s acceptance to be the bride of Boaz; the women then rest in Boaz’s care. In conclusion, Calderon’s painting depicted the intense love that both Naomi and Ruth portrayed as women. The androgyny in the picture allowed for different and various interpretations of the figures embracing. Poussin seems to have done the same in his painting of Ruth before Boaz, depicting Ruth as a rather masculine figure. Both images describe the loyalty and the love that Naomi and Ruth have. Their relationship as widowed mother and daughter in-law describes a prolonged journey for survival as women with nothing. Boaz’s entry into the story cast him as the refuge through which these women were saved. These women struggled alone (or perhaps with the implicit providence of God) through a journey that ended with a beautiful outcome; a famous lineage (Ruth 4.18-22). The relationship between Ruth and Naomi as depicted by these artists offer an understanding of the biblical story that is both challenging and stimulating. Bibliography Blyth, Caroline. “Advent offering 19 December.” Auckland Theology and Religious Studies, Accessed April 26, 2015. Elkan, Jenny. “Philip Hermogenes Calderon 1833-1898: Artist Biography.” TATE Accessed April 26, 2015. Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Koosed, Jennifer. Gleaning Ruth: A Biblical Heroine and her Afterlives. University of South Carolina Press, 2011. I’ll be back in a day or two with the second student work on visual exegesis in the book of Ruth.

Danger and Desire: Student work

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?


Anna Alexander

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.

Aubrey Beardsley, John and Salome (1907)
Aubrey Beardsley, John and Salome (1907)

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.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Stomach Dance (1907)
Aubrey Beardsley, The Stomach Dance (1907)

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”’ (, thus implying the presence of Herod’s gaze within the picture.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Eyes of Herod (1907)
Aubrey Beardsley, The Eyes of Herod (1907)

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.

Works Cited:

Primary Sources:

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

Secondary Sources:

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. Electronic Resource.

Riter, Amanda. ‘Villain or Victim: Transforming Salome through Adaptation’. Interdisciplinary Humanities. Vol. 31. Pp. 18-31. 2014. Print.