Salome – Biblical Girls Will be Biblical Girls

Salome, Ella Ferris Pell, 1890

After identifying Judith you might ask, okay so how do you know if it’s Salome? It’s a little easier. But unlike Judith, Salome is more of a background character. A pawn. But from famous paintings, you might not think so.

This is a bit of a defence of Salome. Yes, she probably shouldn’t be asking for the heads of holy people, but let us look at the source text before coming to conclusions.

The incident in Mark (6:21–28) reads:

A convenient day arrived when Herod spread an evening meal on his birthday for his high officials and the military commanders and the most prominent men of Galilee. The daughter of Herodias came in and danced, pleasing Herod and those dining with him. The king said to the girl: “Ask me for whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” Yes, he swore to her: “Whatever you ask me for, I will give it to you, up to half my kingdom.” So she went out and said to her mother: “What should I ask for?” She said: “The head of John the Baptizer.” She immediately rushed in to the king and made her request, saying: “I want you to give me right away on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” Although this deeply grieved him, the king did not want to disregard her request, because of his oaths and his guests. So the king immediately sent a bodyguard and commanded him to bring John’s head. So he went off and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter. He gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.

Salome has little agency here. Unlike Judith, she didn’t dress up to kill anyone in revenge. And she’s not a scheming lustful femme fatale.

One, it’s not like Salome is going to have a choice in dancing for “the most prominent men of Galilee”. Herod is basically paying her after the fact for something he could have forced her to do for free. And the whole “oaths and guests” is such a cop-out, Herod.

Two, surely Salome’s mother should be the culprit here. She has a pretty quick answer to Salome’s question of what to ask for. Really Salome is a pawn of others peoples desires.

Andrea Solario
Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, Andrea Solario, 1507-9

Earlier paintings fall in line with the Biblical story. There are hints of sexuality, but Salome often looks away from the head. She did her due now she’s a bit disinterested.

So how can you tell a painting is of Salome? Before the 1800s it’s pretty easy to tell. There’s a head on a platter.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, Bernardino Luini, 1525 – 1530
Salome, Giampietrino, 1510 - 30
Salome, Giampietrino, 1510 – 30
Salome, Sebastiano del Piombo, 1510

(Free idea – youtube hair tutorials based off of paintings. I love those braids.)

The last two examples emphasize Salomes sexuality. The lustful femme fatale slowly image begins.

Salome, Titian, 1550
Salome, Titian, 1550
Salome Willem Panneels
Salome met het hoofd van Johannes de Doper, Willem Panneels, 1631

Then Salome found a bad girl streak.

Gustave Moureau comes around in the late 19th century and we get this.

The Apparition, Gustave Moreau, 1876
The Apparition, Gustave Moreau, 1876

Anytime he could turn a figure into a femme fatale, y’all best believe he did. (See: Sphinx)

Everyone jumped on the bandwagon. The painting inspired Oscar Wilde to write a play, Salomé. And Richard Strauss followed it with an Opera.

She was turned into an Orientalist-inspired sex-fiend demon woman. Her dance becomes a striptease. And she’s ready to bathe in St. John the Baptists blood just to get a kiss. When in the original source she’s just a manipulated girl that has to dance for some horny old dude.

An excerpt from Wilde’s Salomé highlights the change. (This is after the decapitation of St. John [Jokanaan].)

SALOMÉ: Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. I said it; did I not say it? I said it. Ah! I will kiss it now. . . . But, wherefore dost thou not look at me Jokanaan? Thine eyes that were so terrible, so full of rage and scorn, are shut now. Wherefore are they shut? Open thine eyes! Lift up thine eyelids, Jokanaan! Wherefore dost thou not look at me? Art thou afraid of me, Jokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me? . . . And thy tongue, that was like a red snake darting poison, it moves no more, it speaks no words, Jokanaan, that scarlet viper that spat its venom upon me. It is strange, is it not? How is it that the red viper stirs no longer? . . . Thou wouldst have none of me, Jokanaan. Thou rejectedst me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst bear thyself toward me as to a harlot, as to a woman that is a wanton, to me, Salomé, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa! Well, I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will.

Aubrey Beardsley illustrated the play. It’s shocking and beautiful. Salomes cruel sneer at Jokanaan’s medusa-like head is pure villainess material. See if you can spot any sexual or vulvic imagery.

Salome Illustration, Aubrey Beardsley, 1893
Salome Illustration, Aubrey Beardsley, 1893

(You can read Salomé here. It’s short.)

Now Salome is synonymous with sexuality. And somewhere in the 19th century, Salome forgot how to wear a top. In paintings before she looked coy or confused. Now the plan to kill St. John the Baptist is entirely hers. She danced for it and awaits her prize. Topless, of course. Often with random “exotic” accessories.

Salome, Pierre Bonnaud, 1900
Salomé, Pierre Bonnaud, 1900
Salome and the head of Saint John Baptist
Salome and the head of Saint John Baptist, Lovis Corinth, 1900
Salome, Franz von Stuck, 1906

This example below is a perfect summation of how the girl Salome becomes a symbol of revenge and lust. She clutches her prize in her wicked bird-like talons.

Salome, Dunbar Beck, 1930s

But not everyone bought into the femme-fatale craze.

Salome, Ella Ferris Pell, 1890
Salome, Ella Ferris Pell, 1890

Ella Ferris Pell’s Salome offers us another flavour.

Salome is not a sex fiend, but a normal pretty young woman. Shockingly, John the Baptist’s head doesn’t appear anywhere. Pell flips the script and focuses on Salome’s tragedy. She is in an impossible situation. If anything she looks troubled and crestfallen, not a lust-filled hellhound.

Of course, the established (male) artists ignored this view.

So here we are. Salome is in tow with Lilith and Lucrezia Borgia as a femme fatale. In the 19th century, I wish women could be plain old bad and evil without it being tied to their sexuality. (I think reclaiming and contextualizing are better tools than removing these pieces though.)

But, she’s pretty easy to spot.


Judith – Biblical Girls Will be Biblical Girls

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

So here’s a thing you may see at museums: lovely ladies with luscious locks with a chopped off head in tow.

It’s a strangely common trope. Once you notice it, you’ll see it everywhere. Who are these women? Why are they chopping off dudes heads and looking quite chummy about it, too?

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Body Hair in Art: Mary and Mary

Illuminated Manuscript

Beauty standards change as do reflections of beauty and the ideal body in art. Indeed, sometimes portraits start to look alike in some eras, like in Sir Peter Lely’s entourage of heavy-lidded beauties.

In the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, the rage was pot bellies and hairless forms.

illuminated manuscript
Book of Hours, France 15th century

(I’m not going to lie I just wanted to use this beautiful image of a man-pony – illuminated manuscripts are the best.)

last judgement painting
Beaune Altarpiece, detail, Rogier van der Weyden, 1445 – 50

Often to be portrayed hairy was to be wild or sinful. Hairiness of body equated to an animal-like nature, like the lustful satyrs, wild hair of the maenads, or the devil itself. But also, as some have noted, there might have been a historic need to remove body hair, as it could be breeding ground for lice and vermin. I mean, there is a supposed downfall in pubic lice because of public grooming.

But really, haven’t we always modified our bodies to fit some unattainable standard?

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A Mysterious Gesture

I kept stumbling across this strange gesture when looking at European portraiture in the 1500s.

El Greco hand

Essentially it’s a hand with extended fingers splayed across the chest with two middle fingers joined. It’s an elegant pose but it’s an unnatural one for your hand to be in, it can even hurt.

Try it now, I’ll wait.

Not exactly comfortable, huh? So why is it seemingly everywhere?

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It’s known from mannerist paintings, most famously in the work of the master El Greco, like in the examples above. But it can be seen across Western European art spanning centuries.

There’s just one problem, no one really knows what it means.

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Elegant Tudor Hands

I recently read Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and it was fantastic. Her portrayal of Anne Boylen as an agent with a cold, cool demeanor was haunting. In Wolf Hall Mantel describes her as a “calculating being, with a cold slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes”.

In the novels, Mantel’s Boylen always fidgets with something – her gown, laces, a dog. Unnerving. It reminded me of her famous portrait at Hever Castle.

Anne Boleyn holds a rose, oil painting.
Anne Boleyn, Unknown Artist

Her hand twists so elegantly holding onto the rose, the sign of Tudor power. But the other hand looks ready to pluck its petals. (It must be mentioned this isn’t the white and red Tudor rose.)

In 16th century European portraiture, it was fashionable for wealthy patrons to have on display expensive accessories symbolizing their power.

If you’re a European noble around 1500 – 1600 and have a portrait sitting coming up, what pose should you strike?

How about…

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