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.


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