Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. WenJuenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.

The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.

In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.

As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.

Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?

lapparition
Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition (c.1876)

A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).

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Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”

Thus,  Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator.  Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition, True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.

salome-and-bill
Salome and Bill, in True Blood (HBO)

But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.

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True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.

“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.

“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009.  Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324

Huysman, Joris Karl. À Rebours. London, UK; Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jewish. Accessed on http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, US; Pantheon Books. 1

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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.

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?

by

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”’ (victorianweb.org), 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. Victorianweb.org. Electronic Resource.

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