Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Coronavirus disruptions

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Saint Thecla Praying
for the Plague-Stricken
talian, c. 1758-1759
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
At this uncertain time all of us on this planet are threatened by a new and insidious microbe, the COVID-19 virus.  Here in New York City, almost everything is closed and those of us who have underlying medical conditions are staying home as much as possible.  Some others are blithely ignoring all the warnings and pleas of health officials to stay off the streets while the death toll climbs higher day by day.  It is an edgy time here and elsewhere in the world. 

So long as I am able to keep from getting infected I will continue to update the right margin of the page with links to earlier articles and to continue to research and write additional things.  But there will be tradeoffs.  I was unable to complete an article about the iconography of Moses because of the shut down of the libraries, making it impossible to consult one of the most important books about his iconography, which is only available in full as a hard copy (and expensive) book.  So, that will have to wait till the libraries are open again.

Those of us who are people of faith must support each other and the world with our prayers.  We ask for good health for ourselves and our friends, of course, and for a speedy end to the epidemic.  We ask also for God's loving presence to touch the ill and the dying, in their terrible isolation.  We ask for the comfort of the Holy Spirit to those who are living in self-imposed isolation, especially for those who are fearful or lonely, and consolation to those who mourn.  And we ask for human solidarity, which sadly we have not seen too much of up to now, though things are beginning to look a bit better.  We ask for God's protection for the millions who are living in terrible conditions and in the midst of continuing wars.  With resources already stretched so thin, even in prosperous countries, they have no real friend but him.

Lord, look kindly on your suffering people.  Amen.



© M. Duffy, 2020 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind

Eustache Le Sueur, Christ Healing the Blind Man
French, c. 1650
Berlin, Schloss Sanssouci

"As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered,
“Neither he nor his parents sinned;
it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.
We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.
Night is coming when no one can work.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made clay with the saliva,
and smeared the clay on his eyes,
and said to him,
“Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” —which means Sent—.
So he went and washed, and came back able to see.
His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said,
“Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is, “
but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
He said, “I am.”
So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?”
He replied,
“The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes
and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’
So I went there and washed and was able to see.”
And they said to him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.
Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath.
So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
He said to them,
“He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.”
So some of the Pharisees said,
“This man is not from God,
because he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others said,
“How can a sinful man do such signs?”
And there was a division among them.
So they said to the blind man again,
“What do you have to say about him,
since he opened your eyes?”
He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now the Jews did not believe
that he had been blind and gained his sight
until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight.
They asked them,
“Is this your son, who you say was born blind?
How does he now see?”
His parents answered and said,
“We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
We do not know how he sees now,
nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.”
His parents said this because they were afraid
of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed
that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ,
he would be expelled from the synagogue.
For this reason his parents said,
“He is of age; question him.”

The Pharisees Question the Former Blind Man and His Parents
From the Psalter-Hours of Yolande of Soissons
French, c. 1280-1300
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 729, fol. 104v
So a second time they called the man who had been blind
and said to him, “Give God the praise!
We know that this man is a sinner.”
He replied,
“If he is a sinner, I do not know.
One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”
So they said to him,
“What did he do to you?
How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them,
“I told you already and you did not listen.
Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
They ridiculed him and said,
“You are that man’s disciple;
we are disciples of Moses!
We know that God spoke to Moses,
but we do not know where this one is from.”
The man answered and said to them,
“This is what is so amazing,
that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.
We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him.
It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God,
he would not be able to do anything.”
They answered and said to him,
“You were born totally in sin,
and are you trying to teach us?”
Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out,
he found him and said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered and said,
“Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him,
“You have seen him,
the one speaking with you is he.”
He said,
“I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.
Then Jesus said,
“I came into this world for judgment,
so that those who do not see might see,
and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this
and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them,
“If you were blind, you would have no sin;
but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains."

John 9:1-41

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A

The dramatic story of the healing of the man born blind is the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Year A, which is this Sunday this year.  It is also the Gospel which the Church has chosen as the Gospel for every fourth Sunday of Lent whenever the catechumens who are to be baptized into the Church and the candidates who are to be received into full Communion with her are present.  Why?
Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind
From the Rossano Gospels
Byzantine (Possibly Syrian), 6th Century
Rossano, Museo Diocesano
MS Codex Purpureus Rossanensis

Like the other Gospel readings for Year A, this Gospel tells us an important story and reveals an important truth about Jesus and about the way in which he revealed himself and that we come to faith in him.  On the First Sunday of Lent we heard about how Jesus was tempted to accept easy fame and honors and to reveal who he was by doing miracles for empty show.  On the Second Sunday we heard how he went up Mount Tabor with three disciples and was transfigured before them, revealing his glory as God and his lordship over time.  On the Third Sunday we heard his discourse with the Samaritan woman and saw her transformed from a frightened, ashamed woman into a bold bearer of the good news of the Messiah. 

This week we hear a similar story.  Jesus gives sight to a man who has been blind from birth, something that for all our advances in medical science we still cannot do.  But, he did, using humble instruments:  a handful of earth and his own spittle. 
Ivory Book Reliquary with the Miracles of Jesus
Late Antique or Byzantine, c. 550
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9384
This book reliquary depicts Jesus enthroned in majesty, surrounded by scenes from the miracles.  On the left side we see the miracles of the man born blind and the paralytic, on the right the miracles of the woman with the flow of blood and the wine at Cana.  In the lower band we see Jesus with the woman at the well and the resurrection of Lazarus.  Interestingly, three of these scenes are depictions of the Gospels for the Third, Fourth and Fifth weeks of Lent in Year A.
The story doesn’t stop there, but goes on to tell us about the response which the once blind man received from the people in power, the Pharisees.  Their response is strange.  Instead of expressing wonder and joy at a cure of such a disability they start worrying about the legality of the work.  It was a Sabbath when no work is permitted, yet Jesus made a paste and cured a man.  For Shame!  Such a violation of the law would have to indicate that the man is not from God.  To all of their questions and barbs the healed man remains perfectly simple in his response, “I was blind and now I see”.  They even call in his parents, both to identify him and to ask if they know what happened.  I must say that I have always loved the parents’ reply “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes.  Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” (John 9:21)
Matthias Gerung, Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind and the Man and His Parents Respond to the Pharisees
From the Ottheinrich-Bibel, Vol. IV
German, c. 1530-1532
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS BSB Cgm 8010(4), fol. 9r
Again and again he gives his interrogators the same answer and keeps confounding their attempts to shake him until finally they lose patience and expel him from the synagogue. 
Brother Philipp, Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind, The Man Responds to the Pharisees and Is Expelled from the Synagogue
From Weltchronik
German (Regensburg), c. 1400-1410
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 33, fol. 279v 
After his expulsion Jesus finds him and reveals himself to him and the man “worshiped him”.  Worship is due only to God, not to human beings.   In that last action of the formerly blind man he has gone from a state of abject blindness as a beggar to that of a disciple who sees the reality behind the physical presence of Jesus in a way that the more hardened Pharisees never could.  He has flipped the tables of the religious world of Jerusalem, seeing what they are unable to see.  He truly can say “I was blind and now I see”. 

And, in this he is the model for every Christian, as we struggle to clear our vision from the things of this world and truly see. And this is why the Church reads this to the catechumens every year.

Perhaps it’s especially pertinent that the Year A cycle of readings appear during this strange Lent of 2020 when churches are closed, Mass is not being celebrated publicly, many of us find ourselves in a solitude that was unimaginable just a few days ago.  Perhaps this experience will act as a kind of clay that will open our eyes to the reality of Jesus Christ. 

Artists have represented this scene for many centuries.  Most have followed the story pretty closely, especially the moment of the miracle.
Half of an Ivory Diptych
Italian, c. 800
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Presumably one of a pair of plaques, this panel, which at some time had been used as a door (note the keyhole), shows Christ in Majesty, the Healing of the Man Born Blind and the Healing of the Paralytic.
Healing of the Man Born Blind and of another man, possibly a leper or mute
From an Ivory Book Cover
Carolingian, c. 870-880
London, Victoria and Albert Museum
Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind
From a Book of Hours
Flemish (Liege), c. 1250-1300
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 G 17, fol. 20v

Many have shown both aspects of what one might call the mechanics of the miracle.  They show not only Jesus anointing the eyes of the blind man with the mixture he had made but also a second scene of the man washing in the pool of Siloam.
Healing of the Man Born Blind and the Encounter of Jesus with the Woman at the Well
From Orations of Gregory Nazianzene
Byzantine, c. 879-882
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 510, fol. 316 
Christ Healing the Man Born Bind
Italian, c. 1080
Capua, Church of Sant'Angelo in Formis
Duccio, Healing of the Man Born Blind
From the Predella of the Maestà
Italian, c. 1307-1311
London, National Gallery
Painted Glass Window Roundel, The Healing of the Blind Man
Dutch, c. 1510-1520
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Jacob Corneliszoon van Oostsanen after Albrecht Altdorfer, Healing of the Blind Man
Dutch, c. 1520-1521
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Healing of the Man Born Blind
Albanian, 1631
Goranxi, Church of Our Lady

Others restrict the image to the moment of the miracle itself.  This eventually became the dominant image for this narrative.
Healing of the Man Born Blind
From The Hamilton Lectionary
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 1080-1099
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 639, fol. 33r
Healing of the Man Born Blind and the Raising of Lazarus
Spanish, c. 1129-1134
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

A few included some of the aspects of the portion of the story relating the interrogation of the and his parents or his expulsion from the synagogue. 
Master of Death, Jesus Anoints the Eyes of the Man Born Blind
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Nortre-Dame
French (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 36v
Master of Death, The Man Born Blind Washes in the Pool of Siloam
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Nortre-Dame
French (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 36v
Master of Death, The Healed Man Born Blind Is Expelled from the Synagogue
From Histoire de la Bible et de l'Assomption de Nortre-Dame
French (Paris), c. 1390-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 526, fol. 37r


One charming series of scenes, covering the entire narrative, can be found in the Book of Hours illuminated by one of the greatest manuscript painters of the early fifteenth century (a century that abounded in great manuscript painters).  Known as the Bedford Master, after a Book of Hours created for the Duke of Bedford, he was a French painter working in the Paris region, which at the period in which he worked was occupied by the English and controlled by John, Duke of Bedford, a brother of King Henry V of England, who was Regent of France for his nephew, the young Henry VI of England.  The series of tiny paintings is spread over many pages and tells the complete story from beginning to end. 


Bedford Master. Jesus Encounters the Man Born Blind
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 85t
Bedford Master, Jesus Anoints the Eyes of the Man Born Blind
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 85v
Bedford Master, The Blind Man Washes His Eyes in the Pool of Siloam
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 86r
Bedford Master, The Blind Man Relates His Cure
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 86v
Bedford Master, The Parents of the Blind Man Are Questioned
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 87r
Bedford Master, The Former Blind Man Before the Pharisees
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 87v
Bedford Master, The Man and Parents Proclaim the Miracle
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 88r
Bedford Master, The Formerly Blind Man Is Cast Out of the Synagogue
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 88v
Bedford Master, The Formerly Blind Man Worships Christ
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1430-1435
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 359, fol. 89r

Some other manuscript painters, and later engravers, also included additional scenes from the full story in their illuminations.

Benedetto di Silvestro, Healing of the Man Born Blind
From Vita Christi
Italian, c. 1500-1550
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 508, fol.  5v
While the principal image of this illumination is the moment of the miracle, there is a tiny image of the moment when the man worships Jesus as Son of Man in the background.  

_Johannes Wierix After Gerard Groenning , Jesus Cures the Man Born Blind
From Thesaurus Novi Testatmenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens historias atque miracula
do(mi) nostri Jesu Christi

Flemish, 1585
London, British Museum
Several parts of the story are included in this image.  In the center is the moment of the miracle.  In the right foreground, the man washes his eyes in the pool of Siloam, while in the right background we see him offering worship to Jesus as Son of Man. On the left side we see the man and his parents being questioned by the Pharisees.

Some artists depicted alternate moments in the story, such as the first encounter between Jesus and the man born blind.
Master of Delft, Christ Heals the Man Born Blind
Dutch, 1503
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
In the foreground the blind man is presented to Jesus by a friend.  In the background Jesus anoints his eyes.

Hirschvogel Workshop After Sebald Beham, Christ Encounters the Man Born Blind
German, c. 1517-1527
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection


As manuscript illumination waned and panel painting and engraving, took over artists tried to include some of the additional details in the backgrounds of their principal image.  Engraved prints, in particular, offered some didactic material with their pictures, often accompanying the image with explanatory written descriptions. 
Antonie Wierix II After Bernardino Passeri, Christ Healing the Man Born Blind
Flemish, 1593
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This complex print includes nearly every portion of the story and provides a letter key to identify the scenes.  

Boethius Bolswert, Christ Healing the Man Born Blind
Dutch, 1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
This image depicts only three episodes, the moment of the miracle, the expulsion of the man by the Pharisees and the blind man worshiping Jesus..  These are items 1 and 2 in the Latin paraphrase of the Gospel that appears below the picture.  Number 3 refers to the separate image at the top of the page, which is the contrast between the hireling shepherd who runs away when the wolf threatens the sheep and the Good Shepherd who stands and defends the sheep.


Most artists, however, focused on the moment of the miracle, when Christ anoints the eyes of the blind man.  As time and techniques permitted artists began to expand the breadth of their vision, placing the miraculous event in wider and more elaborate natural and manmade settings.
Hans Schaeufelein, Christ Healing the Blind
From Das Plenarium
German, 1517
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
El Greco, Christ Healing the Man Born Blind
Greco-Spanish, c. 1570
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
There is another, slightly different version of this painting in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma.
Crispin van den Broeck, Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind
Flemish, 1577
Windsor, Collection of Her Majesty the Queen
Joos de Momper, Christ Healing the Blind Man
Flemish, c. 1610-1630
Private Collection
David Vinckboons, Jesus Cures the Man Born Blind
Flemish, c. 1600-1633
Princeton (NJ) Princeton University Art Museum
Follower of Jacob Jacobszoon de Wet. Healing of the Man Born Blind
Dutch, c. 1670-1700
Inverness, Museum and Art Gallery
Christ Putting Clay on the Eyes of the Man Born Blind
Dutch, c. 1700-1725
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Sebastiano Ricci, Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind
Italian, c. 1712-1716
Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland
Francesco de Mura, Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind
Italian, c. 1750-1780
Reading, Berkshire, Basildon Park, National Trust
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Miracle of Christ Healing the Man Bor Blind
Italian. 1752
Hartford, The Wadsworth Atheneum
Attributed to John Martin, Jesus Healing the Man Born Blind
English, c. 1830-1850
New Haven, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Late in the nineteenth century, the French painter James (Jacques) Tissot traveled to the Holy Land to prepare two detailed series of watercolor paintings illustrating multiple scenes from both the Old and New Testament.  They were published by him in two volumes of reproductions and have been used extensively in illustrated Bibles since then.  He chose to avoid the moment of the miracle and to focus on two later scenes:  the blind man washing his face in the pool of Siloam and his response to the questioning of the Pharisees. 
James Tissot, The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
James Tissot, The Healed Blind Man Responds to the Interrogation of the Pharisees
French, c. 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum
Tissot’s work represented the end of the line for easily readable Biblical images by major artists.  The last of Tissot’s work was published in 1902.  Thereafter, high art became more definitely abstract and less involved in narration. 


© M. Duffy, 2020

Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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.



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.