Friday, February 21, 2020

Solomon and Sheba, Part II, The Wisdom of Sheba



Jean Bandol and Others,   The Queen of Sheba Questions King Solomon
From Grande Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1371-1372
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 B 23, fol. 163v
"The queen of Sheba, having heard a report of Solomon’s fame, came to test him with subtle questions.  

She arrived in Jerusalem with a very numerous retinue, and with camels bearing spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. She came to Solomon and spoke to him about everything that she had on her mind.

King Solomon explained everything she asked about, and there was nothing so obscure that the king could not explain it to her.
When the queen of Sheba witnessed Solomon’s great wisdom, the house he had built, the food at his table, the seating of his ministers, the attendance and dress of his waiters, his servers, and the burnt offerings he offered in the house of the LORD, it took her breath away.

“The report I heard in my country about your deeds and your wisdom is true,” she told the king.   “I did not believe the report until I came and saw with my own eyes that not even the half had been told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard. Happy are your servants, happy these ministers of yours, who stand before you always and listen to your wisdom.
Blessed be the LORD, your God, who has been pleased to place you on the throne of Israel. In his enduring love for Israel, the LORD has made you king to carry out judgment and justice.”

Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty gold talents, a very large quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again did anyone bring such an abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. . .
King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba everything she desired and asked for, besides what King Solomon gave her from Solomon’s royal bounty. Then she returned with her servants to her own country.

1 Kings 10:1-10, 13 (Repeated up to verse 10 in 2 Chronicles 9:1-9)

There is also another reason for Sheba’s visit, according to the Bible.  She “came to test him with subtle questions”.

The Questioning Queen


In fact her visit seems to imply that she is herself a woman of knowledge and deep thought, who questioned him, not so much to seek his answers but to test his knowledge and wisdom against her own.  Out of this arises stories that support her own wisdom and demonstrate the depth of his.  As one art historian put it In the Orient, where legends, fables, and riddles abounded, and were in great favor, both with the Jews and with the Arabs, and where the solving of riddles was regarded as proof of great sagacity, numerous legends were woven around their names, and the subject of the riddles elaborately developed. The legends probably began as folkloric tales built on older myths of the Near East and went orally to and from the Syrian and Yemenite Jews, from them to the Arabs, and back to the Jews again, from people to people, and from country to country, often beginning with the words "it is told," so that their exact movements are hard to trace, though Babylonian and Persian roots for some of them are believed to exist.”1

The earliest images of the Queen of Sheba that I have been able to locate are the statues that are part of the decoration of the earliest Gothic cathedrals.  Indeed, the first one comes from what was the very first Gothic building, the royal Abbey of Saint Denis, just outside Paris, built around 1140.  Heavily damaged in the French Revolution, the head is held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris.  
Head of Queen of Sheba from Abbey of Saint-Denis
French, 1140
Paris, Musée de Cluny, Musée national du Moyen Age

The second comes from the west façade of Chartres, built just before the fire of 1145 which required the rebuilding of the body of the cathedral that we still see today.  In an eerie foreshadowing of the terrible fire of April 15, 2019 at Notre-Dame de Paris, only the recently completed façade of Chartres survived the fire of 1145.  She stands with other Old Testament kings and judges:  Samuel, David, Solomon.  
Jamb figures, Samuel, David, Sheba, Solomon
French, c. 1145
Chartres, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres

At another door of Chartres, built approximately 50 years later, she stands again with Solomon and the Prophet Baalam.  Her place is clearly among the wise.
Balaam, Sheba and Solomon, Left Jamb Figures, North Transept
French, c. 1204-1210
Chartres, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres
In Biblical illustrations in books and on decorative objects she is often shown in conversation with King Solomon.  Frequently, their hand gestures indicate that they are having a heated discussion about some subject. 
Possibly Nicholas of Verdun,  Gold Buckle with Solomon & Sheba
Mosan, c. 1200
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in Discussion
French, c. 1220-1240
Amiens, Cathedral, Western Exterior
Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Solomon and Sheba in Discussions
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 156, fol. 176
Solomon and Sheba in Discussions
From Bible historale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 10, fol. 318r


Solomon Trying to Convince Sheba of a Point of Discussion
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9, fol. 159v


Some images make direct reference to puzzles that Sheba is reputed to have set before Solomon to test his wisdom and discernment.  
Solomon Responds to a Puzzle Presented by the Queen of Sheba (while two "Wild Men" look on)
From De Mulieribus claris by Boccaccio
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 598, fol. 67v
Possibly Herman Scheerre, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
From the Great Bible
English (London), c. 1400-1425
London, British Library
Ms Royal 1 E IX, fol. 166r
Here the queen's ladies seem to be astonished at either her question or Solomon's answer.  All their mouths are opened in a doll-like O of astonishment.  Sheba herself seems amused.
Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
From Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400-1424
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 394, fol. 150v
The gesture of the queen suggests the wonder she felt at Solomon's understanding, as voiced in the biblical passage that begins this essay.

One such is the subject of a tapestry woven in the Alsace region at the end of the fifteenth century.  It represents a test set by Sheba in two forms, both of which require Solomon to make a judgment.  Two children, dressed identically, stand between them.  One is a boy and one is a girl.  Sheba asks Solomon to say which is which.  He determines, rightly, that girls are more likely to remove nuts from the ground by kneeling and collecting them in the folds of their skirts, whereas boys are more likely to pick up a nut to throw it at something.  Sheba’s second question involves the two flowers she is shown holding.  One is real and one is a very careful and realistic copy.  Which is which?  Solomon leaves the choice up to a bee, which can be seen (looking more like a small bird than a real bee) in the space between the edge of Solomon’s canopy and the scroll with writing on it at the center of the picture).  Not surprisingly, the artificial flower doesn’t fool the bee and the real flower is revealed.2

Poses Questions for Solomon
Alsatian, c. 1490-1500
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection

The True Wisdom of Sheba and the Holy Cross

One particular legendary aspect of the Queen of Sheba that reveals the great wisdom for which she was noted is that, alone of all people, she had the power to discern the wood of the True Cross hundreds of years before it was made into the Cross of Christ.  The most famous depiction of this is found in the Chapel of the Holy Cross painted by Piero della Francesca at the Church of San Francesco at Arezzo. 


Piero della Francesca, The Queen of Sheba Reverences the Wood That Will Become the True Cross and Is Greeted by King Solomon on Her Arrival in Jerusalem
Italian, c. 1452-1466
Arezzo, Church of San Francesco, Chapel of the Holy Cross
This story is hinted at in the Legenda aurea, the famous compendium of fantasy, legend and history created by Jacopo da Voragine in the late thirteenth century.  “When Seth came again he found his father dead and planted this tree upon his grave, and it endured there unto the time of Solomon. And because he saw that it was fair, he did do hew it down and set it in his house named Saltus. And when the Queen of Sheba came to visit Solomon, she worshipped this tree, because she said the Saviour of all the world should be hanged thereon, by whom the realm of the Jews shall be defaced and cease. Solomon for this cause made it to be taken up and dolven deep in the ground.”3

Voragine doesn’t say in what manner Sheba “worshipped this tree” but clearly, he means that she showed some kind of deep reverence to it.   It is difficult to determine how the beam is being used in Piero’s picture.  It appears to be lying on the ground like a threshold as Sheba kneels in prayer before it.  All the other versions of this part of the story that I have seen suggest that it is part of a bridge.  Therefore, Sheba refuses to cross the stream using the bridge because that would be to walk on the wood of the cross.  And, she therefore walks through the stream to reach Solomon who is waiting for her on the far bank. 


Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Queen of Sheba Refuses to Use the Bridge Made from the Wood That Will Become the True Cross
From the Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1435-1445
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 917, fol. 109a
Giorgio Reverdino,  The Queen of Sheba Bypasses the Bridge Made From the Wood That Will Become the True Cross
French, c. 1530-1535
Chicago, Art Institute
Georg Pencz,  The Queen of Sheba Avoiding the Bridge Made of the Wood That Will Become the True Cross
German, c. 1532
Chicago, Art Institute

Queen of Color

One further aspect of the iconography of Solomon and Sheba that should be noted is the question of color.  Since both Solomon and the Queen of Saba (from Yemen) were desert dwellers one would expect that they would be of a darker complexion than someone from medieval France or Germany.  Further, there is also a tradition of identifying the Queen of Sheba, whether from Yemen or Ethiopia, with the woman speaker in the Song of Songs, which was traditionally attributed to Solomon himself.  There the woman clearly states: “I am black and beautiful, Daughters of Jerusalem — Like the tents of Qedar, like the curtains of Solomon.  Do not stare at me because I am so black, because the sun has burned me.” (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

Although today it may be obvious that the queen from a portion of southern Arabia or from Ethiopia would be dark complexioned, there is very little evidence for a darker skinned queen in the art of Western Europe.  This is likely due to scarcity of visual models for darker skinned peoples rather than to assumptions of prejudice.  Western Europe today is far more integrated than it was previously, due to better communications and large scale immigration in very recent decades.  However, even as recently as 40 years ago it was a novelty to see a dark skinned person in many parts of Europe.  I know this from experience because, as a young woman I spent considerable time in the British Isles and in France.  As a lifelong resident of New York City I was accustomed to seeing people of all skin tones in large enough numbers to be completely unremarkable.  However, while France was somewhat more integrated than the British Isles, both large portions of England and virtually all of Ireland were completely white in tone.  Travel then, while not as universal as it is today, was still considerably easier than it had been for all the millennia which preceded the twentieth century.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in previous centuries opportunities for observing persons of color in Europe were seriously limited.   However, there are a very small number of images in which artists, making the identification between the Queen of Sheba and the Queen of the South, who is also mentioned in the Bible, and the famous passage from the Songs of Songs cited above, did portray the queen as a woman of darker color, even of much darker color, than the king.  But most likely they were drawing more on their imagination than on personal observation.4
Nicholas of Verdun, Solomon  Greets the Queen of Sheba
Mosan, c. 1181
Klosterneuburg (AU), Abbey Church
The Queen of Sheba Meets Solomon
German, c. 1280
Cologne, Cathedra
Obviously the chemicals used to create the color for the faces of the queen and her attendant have turned a bluish tone over the years.
Masters of Dirc van Delf, The Queen of Sheba Questioning King Solomon
From Tafel van den Kersten Ghelove
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1400-1415
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 691, fol. 148r
The Queen of Sheba
From Bellifortis by Conrad Kyeser
German, c. 1402-1405
Goettingen, Staats-und Universitaetsbibliothek,
MS 2 Cod. MS. Philos. 63, Clm., fol. 122r
Bellifortis is a version of the name under which Sheba is known in Islamic tradition.
Master of the Feathery Clouds, King Solomon Visits the Queen of Sheba
From a History Bible
Dutch (Utrecht), c. 1467
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 39, fol. 335v
It appears that at some later date someone has tried to obliterate the facial features of the queen.  However, her dark hands were left intact.  

Sexual Partners?

In the art of Western Europe there is little suggestion of sexual intrigue between the two until fairly late.  Indeed, it isn’t until the nineteenth century, when wider travel and a romantic taste for the exotic became commonplace, that such overtones begin to appear, although they appear to have been circulating in Ethiopian, Jewish and Islamic folklore for some time.5

Solomon Led Astray

That there might have been some sexual contact between Solomon and Sheba is highly possible, given what the Bible says about Solomon’s harem.  According to the Bible “He had as wives seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines…” (1 Kings 11:3).  So, he obviously had strong appetites.  But it was this huge harem that was his undoing and the undoing of his legacy.
James Tissot, The Harem of Solomon
French, c. 1892-1902
New  York, The Jewish Museum

In his old age “…his wives had turned his heart to follow other gods, and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God, as the heart of David his father had been”. (1 Kings 11:4).  Because of his change of heart God tells him that he will "…surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. But I will not do this during your lifetime, for the sake of David your father; I will tear it away from your son’s hand. Nor will I tear away the whole kingdom. I will give your son one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (1 Kings 11:11-13)   There are images which show this episode in his life and some of them identify the woman as the Queen of Sheba.  However, the Bible does not imply this.  The Biblical narrative suggests that the Queen had returned to Sheba many years before this occurs. 

For more about the meeting between Solomon and Sheba see:  "Solomon and Sheba, Part I, the Queen Comes to Visit"


1.  Ostoia, Vera K. Two Riddles of the Queen of Sheba, The Metropolitan Museum Journal, Volume 6, 1972, pp. 73-95.  The text of the scrolls for their conversation reads:  "Bescheyd mich kunig ob blumen und kind Glich an art oder unglich sind" ("Tell me, king, if flowers and children are like, or unlike in their kind").  To this Solomon replies: "Die bine ein guote blum nit spart das knuwen zoigt die wiplich art" ("The bee does not miss a real flower. Kneeling shows the female sex."), p. 75.
2.  Ostoia, ibid.
3.  The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275.  First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931), Vol. III, page 78.  Located at the Internet Medieval Source Book at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/index.asp
4.  Buschhausen, Helmut.  The Klosterneuburg Altar of Nicholas of Verdun: Art, Theology and Politics, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 37 (1974), pp. 1-32, see especially pp. 17-18.

5.  Ostoia, ibid.


© M. Duffy, 2020


Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Solomon and Sheba, Part I, the Queen Comes to Visit

Melchior Michael Steidl, The Queen of Sheba
Austrian, 1698
Lambach, Monastery Church of the Assumption

“The queen of Sheba, having heard a report of Solomon’s fame, came to test him with subtle questions.

She arrived in Jerusalem with a very numerous retinue, and with camels bearing spices, a large amount of gold, and precious stones. She came to Solomon and spoke to him about everything that she had on her mind.
King Solomon explained everything she asked about, and there was nothing so obscure that the king could not explain it to her.



Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty gold talents, a very large quantity of spices, and precious stones. Never again did anyone bring such an abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. . .

King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba everything she desired and asked for, besides what King Solomon gave her from Solomon’s royal bounty. Then she returned with her servants to her own country.

1 Kings 10:1-10, 13 (Repeated up to verse 10 in 2 Chronicles 9:1-9)

This is all the Bible has to say about the famous meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: a wealthy and curious queen from a distant land comes to Jerusalem with the intention of putting the king of Israel under the microscope, is impressed, gives him rich gifts and departs for home.  Everything else that has been handed down has been embroidered onto this narrative, usually with good intentions.  For instance, some of the embellishment serves to provide a history for the former hereditary rulers of Ethiopia that links them to the Biblical narrative, or provides a spicy (pun intended) addition to the story of Solomon which builds upon his father’s affair with Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, or as another of the tales that suggest how wise Solomon was.  The fact that the other person in the story is a woman, and, not just a woman, but a queen regnant, gives it extra punch.  
Frederick Sydney Eden, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
Drawing Record of  a Stained Glass Window
English, c. 1920
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

There have been many heated discussions, even whole TV documentaries, seeking to prove whether she existed and, if she did, whether she came from Ethiopia (the traditional view) or from Yemen (the archaeological view).  While I think these controversies are interesting, it is not necessary to resolve the questions and find the answers in order to look at the Biblical narrative and the iconography it inspired.  

The iconography of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is multi-layered.  The earliest images are of Sheba the wise queen who considers herself the equal of Solomon and so comes in great state to test him. 

The Journey and Arrival of the Queen

A small number of pictures depict scenes of the Queen’s departure, journey and arrival in Jerusalem.  
Claude Lorrain, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba
French, 1648
London, National Gallery
They tend to focus on the diversity and size of her entourage and the formality of her reception by Solomon.  This is a clearly a state visit, similar to the state visits of today, with large entourages and a great deal of protocol.  This was not a casual dropping by of one neighbor to another.  The images emphasize the power and wealth of the queen and Solomon’s solemn reception pays her the recognition that is due to a fellow sovereign.  Indeed, her arrival was the inspiration for one of the most well-known pieces of Baroque music, Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Act III of his oratorio, Solomon, which was used during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics to introduce the amusing stunt entrance of the very real Queen Elizabeth II.  

Maubeuge Master, Journey of the Queen of Sheba
From Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1320-1330
New York, Pierpont Morgan LIbrary
MS M 322, fol. 189v

Apollonio di Giovanni, Journey of the Queen of Sheba
Italian, c. 1450
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Alberto Carlieri, The Queen of Sheba Visiting King Solomon in an Architectural Capriccio
Italian, c. 1700
Private Collection
Franz de Paula Ferg, Landscape with the Procession of the Queen of Sheba
Austrian, First Half of 18th Century
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Samuel Colman, Romantic Landscape with the Journey of the Queen of Sheba
English, c. 1830
Bristol, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Edmund Dulac, The Journey of the Queen of Sheba
From L'Illustration, Numéro de Noël
English, 1911
Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art

The images of arrival and greeting blend easily into those of the queen as Gift-Bearer.
Master of Death, Meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Notre-DameFrench (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 21v
King Solomon Receives the Queen of Sheba
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 159, fol. 289v
Lorenzo Ghiberti, Meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
Italian, c. 1425-1452
Florence, Baptistry, Doors
Francesco del Cossa, Meeting of Solomon and Sheba
Italian, Third Quarter of 15th Century
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts



Belisario Corenzio, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
Italian, 1621
Naples, Church of Saints Severino and Sossio, Cappella Belgioioso

Ivory Box with the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
German, First Half of 19th Century
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gruenes Gewoelbe Museum
Edward Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
English, 1890
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Gift Bearing Queen


The largest category of images is that of the Queen presenting her gifts to the King. One might call that simple reportage.  In some of the pictures she presents a single, representative gift herself.  This is especially true of the earlier images.  
Master of the Roman de Fauvel, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to Solomon
From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French, c. 1320-1340
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 71 A 23, fol. 174v
The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
From Weltchronik by Rudolf von Ems
Bohemian, c. 1360
Fulda, Hochschul-und Landesbibliothek
MS 100 Aa88, fol. 635-317r
Konrad Witz, Solomon and Sheba
Swiss, 1435
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
Robert Boyvin, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to Solomon
From a Book of HoursFrench (Rouen), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 1, fol. 35v

The Queen of Sheba Presents Her Gifts to King Solomon
Flemish, 15th-16th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

However, as the ability to render space on a flat plane developed during the Renaissance so did the number of people represented in paintings and sculpture.  Sheba now does not give gifts to Solomon herself, but indicates them with a gesture toward the members of her entourage who bear the actual gifts.  And the number of gifts increases until it does actually represent something resembling the amounts described in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles.

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Queen of Sheba Presenting Gifts to King Solomon
German, c. 1534-1535
Windsor, Royal Library
Lambert Sustris, The Queen of Sheba and Her Entourage Presenting Gifts to King Solomon
Dutch, c.1540-1555
London, National Gallery
Maarten de Vos, The Queen of Sheba and Her Entourage Present Gifts to King Solomon
Flemish, 1569
Celle, Schlosskapelle
Lavinia Fontana, Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
Italian, c. 1600
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland
For this painting, by one of the famous women artists of the Renaissance, the attendants are all female and wear armor.
Paul Vredeman de Vries and Adriaen van Nieulandt I, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
Flemish, c. 1600-1610
Paris, Musée des Arts decoratifs
Pietro da Cortona, The Queen of Sheba Presenting Gifts to Solomon
Italian, c. 1621-1623
Rome, Palazzo Mattei di Giove

Frans Francken II, The Queen of Solomon Presents the First Gifts to King Solomon
Flemish, c. 1630
Private Collection
Dirck van Delen, The Queen of Sheba Paying Homage to King Solomon
Dutch, 1638
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Nicolaus Knuepfer, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
German, 1640s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
An extra exotic touch is added to this picture by the addition of the dark figure among the queen's attendants at the far right of the picture.  From his complexion and the arrangement of feathers in his hair he is likely evidence that the artist has seen one of the Native Americans who began to appear in Europe at about this time, particularly in those countries with colonies in the New World.  The arrangement of feathers suggests someone from the Northeastern area of what is now the United States rather than someone from farther south or west.
Jacques Stella, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to Solomon
French, c. 1650
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Luca Giordano, The Queen of Sheba Presenting Gifts to King Solomon
Italian, c. 1697
Munich, Bayerische Stratagemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Donato Creti, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
Italian, c. 1721-1727
Clermont-Ferrand, Musée d'art Roger-Quillot
Johann Georg Platzer, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
Austrian, c. 1730-1760
Marburg, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte der Philipps-Universität Marburg
Johann Friedrich August Tischbein, The Queen of Sheba Paying Homage and Presenting Gifts to King Solomon
German, c. 1780-1800
Private Collection
Giovanni De Min, Solomon and Sheba
Italian, 1846
Unknown Location
This painting by the Italian Giovanni De Min, from the middle of the 19th century reflects the greater interest in archaeological detail, and especially in Egyptian antiquity, that followed Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798.



The subject of the visit of the Queen to Solomon, with its undertone of exotic spices and hidden agendas, became a very popular one for decorative purposes.  It was used to decorate plates and other items, both decorative and useful.
Pierre Reymond, Enameled Copper Plate with the Queen of Sheba Paying Homage to King Solomon
Franch, c. 1560
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Majolica Plate with the Queen of Sheba Before King Solomon
French, Late 16th Century
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Capodimonte Porcelian Factory, King Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba
Vase of soft-paste porcelain
Italian, c. 1750
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Giovanni Agostino Ratti, Majolica Vase with Solomon and Sheba
Italian (Savona), c. 1750
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kunstgewerbemuseum

In England especially it seems to have been very much in vogue as a subject for needlepoint and embroidered pillows and cushions worked by industrious women to decorate their homes.
Solomon and Sheba Embroidered Pillow
English, c. 1650
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Embroidered Picture of King Solomon Greeting the Queen of Sheba
English, late 17th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Embroidered Picture of  the Queen of Sheba Offering a Gift to King Solomon
English, c. 1700
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wider Implications of Sheba’s Gift Giving


During the medieval period and into the Renaissance it was customary to relate Old Testament events to events in the New Testament as what were known as “types”.  Therefore, it is not uncommon to find the gift-giving of the Queen of Sheba, a Wise Woman, equated to the presentation of valuable gifts (including the spices for which the region of Saba was known) to the Christ Child by the Three Wise Men.  Also implicit in this action of gift-giving is a recognition that the gift-giver is subordinate to the receiver and is offering the gift as an act of homage.  Frequently this was done in a three-part schema in which two Old Testament scenes, one from the period of Genesis, known as the period Before the Law; the other from any of the books from Exodus on, known as the period Under the Law; was presented alongside a scene from the Gospels, known as the period Under Grace.  For the story of Solomon and Sheba, there does not seem to have been a universally accepted corresponding scene from the period Before the Law.  Instead other scenes are used.  
Nicholas of Verdun, Meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek
"Before the Law"
From the Klosterneuburg Altar/Verdun Altar, Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey Church


Nicholas of Verdun, Adoration of the Magi
"Under Grace"
From the Klosterneuburg Altar/Verdun Altar, Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey Church
Nicholas of Verdun, The Queen of Sheba Presenting Gifts to Solomon
"Under the Law"
From the Klosterneuburg Altar/Verdun Altar, Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey Church
For example, the twelfth century Klosterneuburg Altar by Nicholas of Verdun uses the meeting between Abraham and Melchisedek (Genesis 14:18-20), which is Before the Law, while a fifteenth century copy of the popular Biblia pauperum illustrated by the Rambures Master, uses a scene from the history of King David, which is actually Under the Law.  The scene is that in which a messenger from Abner, the general of the former king, Saul, offers a pact to King David.  This pact guaranteed David the kingship of all of Israel (2 Samuel 3:12-21). 


The Rambures Master, David Receives the Messenger from Abner, Adoration of the Magi, The Sheba of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
From Biblia pauperum
French (Amiens), c. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS RMMW 10 A 15, fol. 022r
This and other scenes of David were used as companion "types" for the Adoration of the Magi.


Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, David Receives the Emissary from Abner, The Queen of Sheba Presents Gifts to King Solomon
Flemish, c. 1480
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Friedsam Collection
The central panel of the triptych of which these two paintings form the wings is a picture of the Adoration of the Magi in the Colonna Gallery in Rome.
The Adoration of the Magi and the Queen of Sheba Presenting a Gift to King Solomon
From a Book of HoursFrench (Paris), c. 1495-1505
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS H 5, fol. 35r
Pseudo-Blesius, David Receiving Tribute from Ten of the Tribes of Israel, The Adoration of  the Magi and the Meeting Between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba
Italian, c. 1515
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Giulio Clovio, The Adoration of the Magi and the Queen of Sheba Presenting Gifts to King Solomon
From the Farnese Hours
Italian (Rome). 1546
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 69, fol. 38v-039r

Further, it should be noted that since the middle ages, and continuing into the present year of 2020, the Liturgy of the Mass for the feast of the Epiphany has used quotations from the Old Testament that refer to the region of Saba, in which the queen reigned.  These quotes appear in the Old Testament reading (“Caravans of camels shall cover you, dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and heralding the praises of the LORD.” Isaiah 60:6); and in what is now called the Responsorial Psalm which follows the reading (“May the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute, the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts.  May all kings bow before him, all nations serve him.” Psalm 72:10-11).  Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the connection between Sheba’s gift-bearing and that of the Magi should have been made so strongly.


For More About the Iconography of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba see:  "Solomon and Sheba, Part II:  The Wisdom of Sheba" coming soon.




© M. Duffy, 2020

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.