Saturday, February 6, 2016

Deadly Dance - Prelude to the Beheading of John the Baptist

Giovanni Baronzio, Feast of Herod and Beheading of John the Baptist
Italian, c.1330-1335
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias,
the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married.
John had said to Herod,
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him
and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.
Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.
When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
Herodias had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee.
His own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests.
The king said to the girl,
“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.”
He even swore many things to her,
“I will grant you whatever you ask of me,
even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
Her mother replied, “The head of John the Baptist.”
The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request,
“I want you to give me at once on a platter
the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests
he did not wish to break his word to her.
So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.
He went off and beheaded him in the prison.
He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl.
The girl in turn gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Mark 6:17-29 (Excerpt from the Gospel for February 5, 2016)

Beheading of John the Baptist
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1230-1239
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 92, fol. 112r

Previously we have looked at some of the aspects of the life and iconography of St. John the Baptist, specifically his birth, his childhood and his role as baptizer and prophet.  The reading above reminds us of the circumstances of his death.  We have John in prison, a captive to Herod Antipas (not Herod the Great).  Herod has married Herodias, the divorced wife of his own brother Philip, and has adopted her daughter, Salome.  John is in prison because of his very vocal opposition to this marriage, which is deemed to be incestuous under Jewish law.  Because of his stance Herodias hates him, while Herod is troubled, but also fascinated by John.

At a dinner party on his birthday to which Herod has invited a number of important guests, Salome performs a dance about which we are told nothing, except that it “delighted” the king and his guests.  Apparently well satisfied Herod rather boastfully tells Salome that he will give her anything she asks for “even to half of my kingdom”.  Urged on by her mother she asks for the immediate execution of John and for his head on a platter.  Not exactly delighted by this request, but feeling bound by his very public promises, Herod complies.  

Jean le Noir, Herod's Feast
From Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), c. 1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 212v

John is killed by being beheaded and Salome gives the head to her mother.  Thus the story of St. John the Baptist ends in a sadly capricious and trivial way.  But what a story artists have woven on top of this!

Beheading of John the Baptist
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquistion francaise 16251, fol. 57v

To begin with, the idea of someone being executed because of the incident of a young girl’s dance is an interesting one. Early images told the story in a straightforward manner.  Sometimes one aspect of the story was the sole image, but sometimes vignettes from the entire story would be included.

Feast of Herod
From Codex Sinopensis (New Testament)
Syrian, c. 550-600
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Supplement grec 12856, fol.10v

We might see Salome dancing, consulting her mother about what to ask for, the beheading of the Baptist, the delivery of the head to Salome and her presentation of it to her mother all in one image.  

Salome Presenting the Head of John the Baptist
Romanesque capital
French, c. 1120
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins

Occasionally, Salome’s dance, which is never described in the Gospels, was interpreted as an acrobatic demonstration worthy of participation in the Olympics!1  

Herod's Feast, Salome's Dance, Beheading of John the Baptist and Presentation of His Head
West Portal, Left Door of Rouen Cathedral
French, c. 1150-1200
Rouen, Cathedral of Notre-Dame

The Dance of Salome
From The Taymouth Hours
English (London), c.1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 106v

However, it was most often simply a dance.

Giotto, Herod's Feast
Italian, c.1315
Florence, Santa Croce, Peruzzi Chapel

Master of the Roman de Fauvel, Herod's Feast and Beheading of John the Baptist
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), c. 1333-1334
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 316, fol. 336

Fra Angelico, Herod's Feast
Italian, ca.1430
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Masolino da Panicale, Herod's Feast
Italian, 1436
Castiglione Olona, Baptistery
Here we see the feast, Salome's delivery of the head to her mother and, high in the background, the burial of John's body by his disciples.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Herod's Banquet
Italian, 1452-1465
Prato, Cathedral

Master Francois and collabators, Herod's Feast
From Speculum historiale by Vincent of Beauvais
French (Paris), 1463
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 51, fol. 270

Over time, though, two scenes came to dominate the iconography.  These were the dance of Salome and her acceptance of the head of the Baptist. 

Donatello, Herod's Feast
Italian, c.1439
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Benozzo Gozzoli. Herod's Feast
Italian, c. 1461-1462
Washington, National Gallery of Art

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Herod's Banquet
Italian, c. 1486-1490
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

Although both had existed during an earlier period, beginning in the fifteenth century these two themes begin to take off in numbers, until by the beginning of the seventeenth century these are about all that is left.

Jeanne de Montbaston, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
From Vies des Saints
French (Paris), c. 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 185, fol. 75r

Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist
From a Breviary
French (Paris), c. 1345-1355
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 75, fol. 488v

Jean le Noir, Salome Receiving the Head of the Baptist
From Petites heures de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), c. 1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 214

Rogier van der Weyden, Salome Receiving the Head of the Baptist
From St. John Altarpiece, Right Wing
Flemish, 1455-1460
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Hans Memling, Salome Receiving the Head of the Baptist
From St. John Altarpiece, Left Wing
Italian, 1474-1479
Bruges, Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal

Jean Colombe, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
From Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolph of Saxony
Franch (Bourges), c. 1475-1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 177, fol. 273

Bernard van Orley, Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
Flemish, c. 1514-1515
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And it is at this point that we begin to see something new.  A long sequence of images shows only Salome and the bloody head on a platter.

Andrea Solario, Salome
Italian, c. 1506-1507
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sebastiano del Piombo, Salome
Italian, 1510
London, National Gallery

Bernardino Luini, Salome
Italian, c. 1527-1531
Florence, Galleria degli'Uffizi

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Salome
German, c.1530
Budapest, National Museum

Caravaggio, Salome with the  Head of the Baptist
Italian, c. 1609-1610
London, National Gallery

In these images Salome (and in one case at least Herodias) appears to respond to the proximity of the head with a kind of meditative stillness and solemn thoughtfulness even when there are other characters in the scene.

Francesco del Cairo, Herodias with the  Head of the Baptist
Italian, c. 1625-1630
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
Although similar to the images of Salome with the head, this image of Herodias carries a tone of revenge, as she grasps the tongue of the Baptist, with which he had denounced her marriage to Herod.

Guido Reni, Salome
Italian, 1635
Rome, Corsini Gallery

Carlo Dolci, Salome
Italian, c. 1665-1670
Windsor, Royal Collection Trust

Paolo Gerolamo Piola, Salome
Italian, c. 1700-1710
Private Collection

Some recent scholarship has proposed that this is to be read as a reference to the Eucharist, in which the head of John, resting on the platter, is likened to the Eucharistic Body of Christ, the Host, resting on the paten at Mass. 2   I do not find the argument entirely convincing, as I think it rests on an overly zealous reading of some of the quotations from the Fathers contained in such medieval compendia as the Catena aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas. 3 Nevertheless, there is definitely something happening in these solemn images, as well as in a series of pictures of the head of John, resting on a platter, that lack any other figure, even that of Salome.  This is a subject for a different essay, however.

Plaque with Head of John the Baptist
English, 15th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aelbert Bouts, Head of St. John the Baptist On A Charger
Italian, c.1500
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Andrea Solario, Head of St. John the Baptist On A Charger
Italian, c.1507
Paris, Musée du Louvre

This solemnity lasted into the eighteenth century.  However, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, as the beginning ripples of what would become Romanticism began to be felt, some of these ripples affected the image of Salome’s reaction to the head.  Since one of the elements of the Romantic vision is a fascination with the grotesque we begin to see Salome taking a more personal interest in the gruesome evidence of her success.

Henry Fuseli, Salome With the Head of John the Baptist
Swiss, c. 1790s
Sold at Christie's London December 3, 2014

Thomas Holloway after Henry Fuseli, Salome With the Head of John the Baptist
English, 1798
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Further, under the impact of Orientalism in the early nineteenth century, with its interest in the Middle East and especially in sensuous aspects of the East, such as the harem and skimpily clad dancing girls, Salome began to transform from a young, relatively innocent woman into an alluring femme fatale.4

Jean Leon Gerome, Dance of the Almeh
French, 1863
Dayton, Art Institute

Henri Regnault, Salome
French, 1870
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod
French, 1876
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau, The Apparition
French, ca. 1890
Paris, Musée Gustave Moreau

Finally, just before the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, a series of poems and plays, culminated in Oscar Wilde’s sensational Salome, in which Salome develops a sexual fixation on John the Baptist.  Wilde's Salome eventually shocked audiences by expressing her passion through an extremely sensual kiss on the dead lips.5  Wilde's innovation was made visually manifest to viewers through the illustration of this moment in the play by Aubrey Beardsley.  

Aubrey Beardsley, The Reward
Illustration for Wilde's Salome
English, 1894

Aubrey Beardsley, The Climax
Illustration for Wilde's Salome
English, 1894

These sensually loaded images were picked up by other artists and quickly developed into an opera by the then-advanced composer, Richard Strauss.  Strauss' opera, Salome, remains very much alive in the contemporary operatic repertoire, both staged and in concert, as well as part of the symphonic repertoire, through the well-known "Dance of the Seven Veils" excerpt.

James Tissot, Salome With the Head of John the Baptist
French, 1886-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum

Alphonse Maria Mucha, Salome
Czech, 1897
Private Collection

The welding of sensuality, demented love, brutality and ultimately death are reflected in many of the images that come to us from artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  But it is probably the invention of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” that had the greatest influence.  Simply named in a stage direction in the Wilde play "[Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils.]", it became an actual dance in the Strauss opera (typically performed by a dancer, not the sometimes hefty singer of the role).  Eventually, outside the Strauss opera, it became a vehicle for some of the music hall stars of the Gilded Age, such as Loie Fuller and Mata Hari, to expose themselves (often quite literally).

Georges de Feure, La Loie Fuller as Salome
Comedie Parisienne Poster
French, 1900
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This, plus the already existing Orientalist image of the exotic dancer of the Middle East, turned Salome and her dance into an exaggerated, near naked version of the belly dance (or the stomach dance as it is called by the early illustrator of Wilde’s play, Aubrey Beardsley).

Lovis Corinth, Salome
German, 1900
Leipzig, Museum der Bildenden Künste

Franz von Stuck, Salome
German, 1906
Private Collection

Robert Henri, Salome
American, 1909
Sarasota, John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art

Gaston Bussiere, Salome
French, 1914
Private Collection
And that is the image that persists in art.  So that St. John has become almost a minor character, even in his own death and, indeed, scarcely appears at all.

© M. Duffy, 2016, new images added and old ones refreshed 2022
  1.       For a brief history of the image of Salome see Rodney, Nanette B. “Salome”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 11, No. 7, March 1953, pp. 190-200.
  2.             Reed, Victoria S. “Rogier van der Weyden’s “Saint John Triptych” for Miraflores and a Reconsideration of Salome”, Oud Holland, Vol. 115, No. 1, 2001/2002, pp. 1-14. 
  3.           St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena aurea, Volume II, Gospel of Mark, Chapter 6, §118, J.G.F. and J. Rivington, London, 1842.  Found at:
  4.             Udo Kultermann.  “’Dance of the Seven Veils’ Salome and Erotic Culture Around 1900”, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 27, No. 53, 2006, pp. 187-215.
  5.       Wilde, Oscar, Salome, 1891.

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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