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Salomé by Titian (1515)

My first encounter with Salomé was at Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, where Titian beautifully captured her facial expression of surprise and loathe combined. Her expression, together with a head on a platter she holds but can not even look at, and her maid looking at her in pity awakened my curiosity for her story. As a lover of stories, I went on and listened to what she had to tell.

Salomé, although never being mentioned by her name, is involved in a biblic story. She lived in the first century in what is now Palestina and was daughter to Herod II and Herodias. Her mother divorced herself from Herod II and married the half-brother of Herod II, King Herod Antipas, with which she fell madly in love. The fact she divorced while her husband is alive, and her marriage to the half-brother of her husband made the disciples preaching against her. John the Baptist, for example, publicly criticized king Herod Antipas and blamed Herodias, especially because she was female and also came from a priestly family. The king therefore threw John the Baptist in prison and went on having his marriage to his sister-in-law.

One day, when Antipas had his birthday party, Salomé danced for him and his guests at the start of the evening. This dance, often referred as very seductive, made Antipas promising Salomé a gift, whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. Salomé is said to deliberately perform such a seductive dance in order to gain something to protect her mother with. Salomé went to her mother Herodias to ask advise on what to ask for from the king. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter and so did she. It is said that Salomé was in unfeasible love with John the Baptist and the little cupid detail on the painting of Titan points to this love. Antipas was in grieve but had to give in to her request because he made a promise in the presence of his guests. He sent a soldier to the prison in order to behead John the Baptist.

Salomé received the head on a platter and she gave it to her mother. The exact moment she received the head, as young and unexperienced she is, resulted in this surprised yet disgusted facial expression many great painters like Caravaggio, Titan and Klimt have drawn. She may have no idea what she asked for before she actually received the head.

Later on, the story is also applied on many theatre plays, movies and operas, with Oscar Wilde’s play and Al Pacino’s movie being one of them.

Nowadays, Salomé is seen as a symbol of woman seductiveness and also of the misuse of power and blaming women. As the king was in charge, he gave in to the wish of Salomé but she is also being accused of the beheading of John the Baptist. Did the seductiveness of the princess make the king unresponsible of his action?   


Salomé by Klimt (1909)
Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist, by Caravaggio
Salomé by Caravaggio (1607)

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