According to Mark’s Gospel, Salome’s mother Herodias wanted John the Baptist dead because he spoke out against her marriage to her brother-in-law, Herod. Herod would not put John to death, because he “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…” (v. 20). The chance to silence John came one day when Herod was hosting a feast for dignitaries and military leaders. Salome, his stepdaughter, came to the banquet and danced for the party. Pleased with her dancing, he asked her if there was anything she wanted. The words are eerily reminiscent of Xerxes questions to Esther during their private banquet with Haman: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you … even up to half my kingdom.” (v. 22-23). Unlike Esther, Salome’s response was direct. As instructed by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. Not wanting to embarrass himself in front of his guests by breaking the promise of a gift (cf. v. 26), Herod ordered the execution. The executioner brought John’s head to Salome, who brought it to her triumphant mother.
Most depictions of Salome in the nineteenth-century depict Salome with John’s severed head, Salome alone near a blood trail (like Moreau did several times), or Salome dancing before Herod. Several factors may have influenced Henri Regnault’s depiction Salome from 1870. Salome was the ultimate femme fatale. Her beauty was dangerous and she used it to her advantage. The popularity of Salome as femme fatale was in part due to authors such as Flaubert, Huysmans, and Mallarme. Perhaps also influential was the art of Regnault’s contemporary, Gustave Moreau, who had been obsessively painting and drawing Salome as a dangerously unexpected seductress since at least the 1860s. In addition to being considered the ‘ideal’ femme fatale, the theme of Salome also lent itself to the nineteenth-century fascination with the Orient and the exotic. Finally, Regnault’s Salome may also have absorbed a long-standing historical interest in the severed head and the soul post-death.
But there is no severed head. And this is precisely what is perhaps most striking about Regnault’s Salome, for she holds all the accouterments of execution; the platter and dagger are within her control, resting on her lap, clean and without blood. Her facial expression is perhaps a mischievous one – she smirks and gazes confrontationally out at the viewer, fully aware of the ominous objects she holds. One hand wraps itself delicately around the dagger, perhaps ready to unsheathe it, while the other rests on her hip as her fingers lightly touch the chest she sits on. She wears a finely ornamented, gold gown that loosely falls over her shoulder. Her gown bunches up on the floor. One foot seems to slowly be making its escape from its slipper and rubbing itself against her other foot, a subtly seductive detail. Salome’s jewelry and belt, along with the leopard-skin rug and Eastern-style chest allude to Salome’s exotic nature. And this is not without merit, for, as a princess living in Galilee, the figure of Salome would have indeed been part of the exotic world of the nineteenth century Orient.
What of John’s head, her trophy? I would argue that Regnault’s Salome is a cleverly constructed piece wherein the viewer sees the true nature of the femme fatale. On the one hand, she is exotic, beautiful, and sensual. On the other, deadly. Her beauty and finely ornamented clothing and possessions distract from her true nature as a seductress bent on blood – or if that is too anachronistic an interpretation, then bent on lust and distracting the artist from what truly matters – his art. Salome, along with the Sphinx and Judith, was a common allegory for the artist needing to triumph over lust and things that would distract him. Many artists of this time remained bachelors, even if they had mistresses. Salome’s (or, the femme fatale) ability to catch man off guard through her beauty, sensuality, and ornamentation, was a common literary and art-historical trope in Europe, but especially in Regnault’s France. Regnault’s Salome is a visual representation of the femme fatale so warned against in intellectual circles. John’s severed head is not needed; the viewer can use their imagination and the visual cues in the painting which suggest danger. On a literal level, Salome’s platter and dagger allude to the Biblical story, receiving as their prize John’s head. Symbolically, they allude to the overwhelming and destructive powers of lust, and Salome, without regret, takes as her prize the moral essence of the viewer.
To explore the painting in greater detail, visit its page at the Met website.
This is the second post on this site solely devoted to the figure of Salome. You can find the first, which was part of a series, here.
This post is modified from its first version on the Caravaggista Tumblr.