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Five Paintings of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Written By Jennifer Ostopovich

Jennifer Ostopovich is an artist and writer who lives in Canada with her family and five crazy pets. She delights in tales of the dark and strange, and her horror and short fiction can be found in publications such as Roi Fainéant, Maudlin House, Coffin Bell, Hobart, and others. Find her on X: @jrostopovich.

The gruesome image of a young woman gazing at the severed head of the man she has condemned to death on a whim has sparked the imaginations of many artists and proved a popular muse for painters and writers alike. Over the centuries the grim scene has spawned poetry, literature, plays and operas, as well as numerous paintings and sculptures.

The origins of the story of Salome can be found in the gospels of both Mark and Matthew. This version is a more pared down version of the tale than the one popularized by Oscar Wilde in his 1893 play, Salomé, it’s really only a few brief lines of text. The biblical story is so bereft of detail that the name of the bold young woman who requested John the Baptist’s head be delivered to her on a silver platter, might have been lost to history but for a single mention by Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100), a Jewish-Roman historian. While Salome is not even specifically named in the biblical stories, this brief recounting detailing her dance for King Herod and her request for the beheading of John the Baptist has become a powerful and enduring tale that has inspired some very cool art.

Salome next appears in literature in the poem ATTA TROLL (1841), by Heinrich Heine, but in the poem, she is merely a dancer, and it is her mother who requests the head of John the Baptist. We find her again in a story by Flaubert, titled “Herodias” (1887). In this version the mother is once again the schemer and uses her daughter to manipulate her husband.

It’s not until Wilde’s florid and salacious one act tragedy, Salomé (1893),that Salome is given some agency as a love-obsessed woman who uses her wiles, and the weakness of her stepfather, to her own ends.The play was originally written in French and banned in England—both due to its scandalous depictions of a biblical story, and also likely thanks to Wilde’s previous incarceration for gross indecency and subsequent self-imposed exile—but was later translated into English and has since been performed widely for international audiences.

It tells of John the Baptist’s imprisonment for his insult to King Herod’s wife, Herodias. John vocally disapproves of Herodias’s divorce and of her subsequent marriage to her ex’s brother, King Herod. Herodias would like John executed for his impertinence, but the king believes him to be a holy man and is overcome by fear and superstition, so chooses instead to imprison him. The king’s stepdaughter, the young Salome, insists on seeing the imprisoned holy man. She falls in love with him on sight and begs him for a kiss, but he is repulsed by her wanton behavior and rejects her advances.

The story takes a lurid turn when the lecherous Herod, who lusts after his stepdaughter, bids her to dance for his court and offers her anything she desires in return. Salome recognizes an opportunity to enact revenge on both her sleazy stepfather and the man who has spurned her and concedes to dance. She performs what is to become the infamous Dance of the Seven Veils and asks for John’s head on a platter as her prize.

Fans of the play might be surprised to learn that although the biblical story mentions a dance, it doesn’t specify what type of dance she performs. The Dance of the Seven Veils was not a part of the original biblical account, and only became synonyms with the story after Oscar Wilde chose to include it in his play. Richard Strauss followed suit in his 1909 opera, Salome, solidifying the dance as part of the tale’s lore. At the end of the play, Herod delivers the head as promised, and Salome finally gets what she most desires, to kiss the lips of her love. This so terrifies and disgusts her stepfather, that he orders his guards to kill her.

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    Rife with drama, tragedy, unrequited lust, and a shockingly gruesome twist, it’s easy to see how the story has sparked imaginations and artistic interpretations. As well as depictions in literature and theater, the scene has also been a favorite subject for painters. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of paintings and illustrations of the popular scene, but here’s a look at five of the more famous depictions of the macabre tableau from artists throughout the ages.

    “If you dance for me you may ask of me what you will, and I will give it you, even unto the half of my kingdom.”

    —Wilde

    The oldest painting on this list can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago and is a painting by Italian artist, Giovanni di Paolo, titled The Head of Saint John the Baptist Brought Before Herod (Tempura on panel, Italy, 1455-1460). This painting is part of a polyptych, a series of panels made by the artist about the life of John the Baptist for the alter of the Augustinian church in Cortona. In it, we see the head of John the Baptist being presented to King Herod while Salome looks on.

    “Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.”

    —Wilde

    This painting by Bernardino Luini is titled Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Oil, 1515-1525, Italy). It currently resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Italian Renaissance saw an interest in biblical depictions (likely due to churches being the primary patrons/commissioners of art at the time) and this scene in particular was popular with Italian Renaissance painters. This is just one of many from the period.  

    “Well, I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death.”

    —Wilde

    Caravaggio painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Oil, 1609, Spain) and sent it to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after being expelled in the hopes of regaining favor. You can find it today in the Royal Collections Gallery in Madrid.

    “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?”

    —Wilde

    Lovis Corinth’s painting Salome (II) (Oil, Impressionism, 1900, Germany) is maybe the most lascivious of the paintings. In it, we see a bare-breasted Salome brazenly prying open the eyes of the disembodied head with heavily jewelled fingers while his body is carted away. Her expression appears to be one of mild disgust. The painting can be found in the Museum dear Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Germany.

    “Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars! Let us hide ourselves in our palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid.”

    —Wilde

    This painting by Gustauve Moreau, which now makes its home in the Musée d’Orsay and is titled The Apparition (Watercolor, 1867, France), is one of nineteen variations the artist painted of the same subject. It shows the spectral head watching from above while Salome dances for Herod. Although religion was becoming less popular and images of the everyday had begun to be favored in art, Salome remained a figure of interest. The painting was a sensation when first presented in Salon and has been inspirational for many artists in the Decadent movement.