Dancing Seductress: Salome

Salome is one of many “bad girls” in art history. The step-daughter of King Herod, she was partially responsible for killing John the Baptist. You can read the full story in Mark 6:14-30. Herod was hesitant to kill John, for fear of what the people might say. John had denounced Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife (Herodias), so an angry Herod threw him into prison. Herod’s new and controversial wife wanted John dead. She had the perfect opportunity to exert her influence at Herod’s birthday party, where important political leaders were in attendance. She implored her lovely daughter, Salome, to exploit Herod’s position (literally, in front of heads of state) by dancing for the crowd. Herod was so impressed that he offered and promised her a reward. She asked for the head of John the Baptist to be delivered on a platter. This is a gory request, especially for a dinner party, and as we’ll see, some artists shied away from the gore more than others. Salome had caught Herod at a moment when he couldn’t refuse. The execution was immediate, and to the glee of her mother, Salome received John’s head. Caravaggio’s interpretation of the beheading of John the Baptist is below. (This is an extremely important work in Caravaggio’s oeuvre and I’ll follow up with a post about it in the New Year.) Salome stands off to the left, holding the golden platter that awaits a bloodied head.

Caravaggio, Beheading of John the Baptist, 1608.

Salome was a particularly popular subject during the Renaissance and Baroque periods and her popularity continued well into the 19th century. (The name Salome was not in consistent use until the 19th century.) I don’t know how old Salome was when she danced before Herod, but artists tend to portray her as a sultry, confident (young) woman. To most of art history, Salome is the sole, conniving figure behind John’s death. Several artists depicted Salome multiple times with varying interpretations. We’ll take a look at a couple of Luini, Caravaggio, and Moreau’s Salomes. Time and length commitments will keep me from examining every possible example of Salome in art history, but I’ve included a modest gallery of images below for your reference and examination.

Luini, Salome, 1510.

Italian Renaissance artist Luini painted Salome several times in his career. Influenced stylistically by Leonardo da Vinci, Luini’s Salome paintings that will be examined here portray her in Renaissance Leonardo-esque beauty and perfection, her clothing, hair, proportions all conformed to the aesthetic standards of the time. Luini’s Louvre Salome (at left) is shown enjoying a triumphant and confident, smug moment with herself, privately, as she turns her head from the executioner’s gift and the viewer. She seems to be internally congratulating herself on a job well done, having secured John’s head for her mother and having found favor with her king Herod. In contrast, Luini’s MFA Salome (below) seems deep in thought, even remorseful. She stares down and away from the head of John itself and the viewer. Indeed, “[h]er look betrays unmistakably a weakening in her task.” Gone is the confident and smug Salome of 1510. We have caught her in a moment, if fleeting, of vulnerability and regret.

Luini, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, date unknown.

Caravaggio 1607

Caravaggio painted Salome twice in his career, once in 1607 (above, now in London) and once in 1609 (below, now in Madrid). These are more intimate and close up views of her than we saw in his Beheading of St. John the Baptist. In the 1607 piece, Salome is looking away from the ghastly sight of John’s freshly severed head. His blood pools into the dish and his executioner holds the head up for all to see. Salome, the impetus behind John’s death, dares not to look. She is not represented as a great seductress and there is nothing about her attire or gaze that suggests that she craftily used her womanly figure to convince Herod to kill John. Her face and expression are pristine in contrast to the monstrous face of the executioner. Perhaps she was merely a puppet in a wider scheme incomprehensible to a girl of her age, given in to the wishes of her mother. Or perhaps the real monsters of the story are Herodias and the executioner.

Caravaggio, Salome, 1609. Madrid.

In Caravaggio’s Madrid Salome, the eye is instantly drawn to the red of Salome’s garment. Unlike the London Salome, here, Salome glances down toward the platter even as her body creeps away from it. The three figures in the painting all seem forlorn and contemplative, but for a different reason than in the London piece. Even the executioner is different – physically and emotionally. He was more angry and ragged in the London piece, but here he stares down at John’s head, separated from the viewer since his back is turned to us and his face is in profile. It is easy for the viewer to take the place of the executioner, place themselves in the scene, and wonder about Salome’s mysterious gaze. Again, Salome is not sexualized, and Caravaggio did not shy away from such matters even if it cost him his commission.

Moreau, The Apparition, 1876.

In contrast to Luini and Caravaggio, Moreau consistently envisioned Salome as a confident woman who was fully aware of the lures of her sexuality. A Symbolist who was fascinated with legends of old and Orientialist ornamentation, Moreau painted Salome in the glorious cloth and environments of the Eastern world.

During his lifetime, Moreau was widely celebrated for his ‘Byzantine’ style and unrepressed sensuality, most readily apparent in his Salome paintings. Indeed, with their burnished, smoldering palettes, his paintings seem to reek of some exotic perfume. … His art is marked by paradox; it is at once ideal, literary, and mystical, yet his most celebrated defender, Joris-Karl Huysmans, waxed poetic on the physicality, the material stuff of his paintings.”

In Moreau’s 1876 piece, Salome’s presence and self-awareness command the canvas. John’s head is lifted up into a holy, haloed levitation as Salome points to it, signifying her power to charm, seduce, and destroy. Her ornamental garments are as impressive as her figure, and combined with her captivating dancing, she is quite the sight to behold. Moreau’s use of ornamentation is not by accident:

“There are paintings where ornament subsumes the event to become the event, a purely visual, abstract event.”

Unlike the previous works, Salome is not introspective, but rather she is a living display of splendor, sexuality, and riches. The viewer is invited to admire her beauty and wealth, rather than to wonder about her inner psychological state – the tools of her seductive ways are obvious and it is these that Moreau explores on his canvases.

Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod, 1876.

For all of the wondrous displays in Moreau’s depictions of Salome, there is still a certain unspoken element that draws me back to representations of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. There is no denying that art historically, Salome is indeed one of the great ill-intentioned seductresses, having used her femininity to achieve an execution. I think this is emphasized more in some works than others, depending on the movement and individual interests of the artists. The issue of representation and why certain artistic choices were made is emphasized in the iconography of Salome.

Take a look at the gallery of images below.Which representation of Salome speaks to you most? Why do you think artists have painted her in such a variegated manner?

Many thanks to the genius behind WTF Art History for inspiration and help with titling this and the forthcoming “bad girl” posts!