Salome: The Image of a Woman Who Never Was


This is the study of a myth and its sources – the mythical image of Salome and its links to the broader cultural myths surrounding women. Although the root of the Hebrew name “Salome” is “peaceful,” the image spawned by this famous woman to carry that name has been anything but peaceful. She and her story have long been linked to the beheading of John the Baptist since Salome was the supposed catalyst for the prophet’s execution. According to the Gospel accounts, it was the seductive beauty of Salome’s dance at the banquet of her stepfather, Herod Antipas, that led to John’s beheading.

Salome and her dance have been topics of literary and artistic works for centuries. The story’s basic origins, however, provide little to suggest that this should be the case. In the Gospel, she is nothing more than a tool in the drama of John the Baptist’s martyrdom (Mark 6:14-29, and Matthew 14:1-12). In the Middle Ages, her role was always secondary to John the Baptist’s. She was part of his story. At the same time, however, she was also widely used as a cautionary example to shape and reinforce a cultural view of women and their place within society. Later, during the Renaissance, and especially in the nineteenth century, she became a fully independent cult figure. Her story was embellished and expanded, becoming a favorite subject of artists and writers. Though the meaning of her roles varied throughout the centuries according to the ideology of the period and the sensibilities of individual artists, she was always predominantly an incarnation of evil. From her humble beginnings, mentioned in a few lines of the Gospels, she had thus become a figure of mythic proportions, entirely independent from the historical Salome.

For the earliest disseminators of the Salome myth it was important to portray her as one of the main players in the execution of John the Baptist. Although he was executed for political reasons by Herod Antipas, in the Bible he became the victim of two women. One of them was the wife of Herod Antipas, Herodias, and the other was her daughter, a young unnamed dancing girl who later appears under the name of Salome.

The Bible and the Church fathers developed three main stereotypes of women: the saint, the sinner and the repenting sinner. The image of a saint, of an ideal woman, a woman-mother, was attached to the Virgin Mary. The image of an evil sinner who is going through the process of repentance was attributed to Mary Magdalene, whereas Salome belongs to the type of the inherently evil sinner who is without repentance, the descendent of the supposedly sinful Eve.

Her image, although always an embodiment of evil, went through a number of transformations. Church fathers and the artists who worked for the Church during the Middle Ages propagated the vision of Salome as evil through writings and the visual arts. When the shifting cultural and artistic norms of the Renaissance placed increasing emphasis on beauty and individuality, the stereotype of Salome as a purely evil destroyer began to falter. Salome’s evil image was thus transformed into the image of a beautiful woman, a muse for artists. This development continued during the Baroque period, when Salome’s cruelty and her already established ideology as an evil and mischievous woman were again emphasized alongside her status as a beautiful muse. As a result of these changes her image became representative of the more secular worldview of the time. Despite the various incarnations of Salome, one thing remained constant up to the nineteenth century: For centuries, she was not an entirely independent figure. Rather, she remained an appendix to John the Baptist and was always represented in association with him.

In the nineteenth century, however, the myth took a different shape. With the increasing independence of women and the appearance of feminist movements, women became a threat and potential competitors to men. Since society and social rules were largely made and governed by men, there was an effort to repress women and not let them break from social stereotypes to become equal, strong, and independent. Ironically, it is through the process of a struggle against women and their potential power that Salome became a truly independent cult figure in her own right. She was used as a tool, a scarecrow of sorts, and as a symbol of the dangerous and destructive woman, manipulative through her beauty and through her ability to enslave and destroy men by awakening in them an uncontrollable sexual desire. The problem raised was that women, while physically and domestically indispensable, were considered by many to be socially destructive if given too much power. In the nineteenth century, Salome became a symbol of the dangerous and seductive woman who, once allowed to gain social power, would destroy man. Her image served as an inspiration for artists, poets, and writers, who used her and her story to create new myths based partly on her existing reputation and partly on their own imaginations and philosophies.

In the nineteenth century, Salome became a symbol of a woman vampire, whore, and murderess. Her supposedly Jewish origins were also stressed in order to emphasize the danger of a rising merchant class, many of whom were Jews. Her myth was thus made into a multifaceted expression of societal fears.

That image of Salome disappeared in the immediate aftermath the First World War, when feelings of hostility and struggle directed toward women were replaced by a real enemy and a true struggle for survival in Europe. The twentieth century created images of Salome in art and literature as well, but those images are only a tribute to the once-powerful myth. Freed of any real ideological foundation, these more recent appearances of Salome are little more than shadows of her former self.

The processes by which myths are created are among the most important of all cultural phenomena. In looking at Salome as a case study, this book examines those processes, considering how Salome and her story were transformed from history into myth. Particular attention is given to why and how Salome was presented as evil and how the purpose of her evil varied from one period to another.

The book is organized chronologically, looking at art and literature from Biblical times through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and into the nineteenth century. The goal is not a survey, but a study of carefully selected works that serve as examples and evidence for my larger argument.

The first part, Creation of the Salome Myth, is divided into four chapters. The first chapter, History, and Myth in the Biblical Story, examines the genesis of the story from historical, textual, and literary viewpoints and considers the reasons for and results of that genesis. I begin with the Biblical story of Salome and its links to earlier folklore, specifically the story of the Roman consul Flaminius, who was expelled from the Roman Senate for having a prisoner killed to impress a young boy who was his lover. This story went through a variety of transformations, appearing in the accounts of different historians and serving as an inspiration for the Evangelists. I explain how they used the story of Salome and John the Baptist as a literary device to make their narrative emotionally and visually more effective, a tactic borrowed from contemporary Roman authors. For the Evangelists, the effect of their narrative was important not only as entertainment but also to construct a religious belief system based on the characters they were discussing. Their accounts of the life and death of John the Baptist—and of Salome and Herodias as archetypal, corrupting women and relatives of Eve—have become engraved in history and in people’s psyche. The critical associations that develop at this early stage form the underpinnings of nearly all later expressions of this story.

The second chapter, The Evil Salome of Theology and Iconography: From the Church Fathers to the Renaissance, analyzes the construction of Salome’s image in Christian theology and how that image was applied to more general views on women. It demonstrates how her image contributed to the established myths of women as evil seducers and destroyers of men.

Chapter three, The Beautiful Salome of Renaissance Painting and Sculpture, is in some sense an extension of the previous chapter. It studies examples of the story of Salome created in different visual art forms from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries. Close examination of these images reveals how they reflect the ideology and established artistic norms of a given period even while shaping new social ideologies and sensibilities. In this chapter I analyze new and unconventional images of Salome. One is by the Northern Renaissance artist Rogier van der Weyden. It was he who invented a new way of representing Salome by turning her head away from the bleeding head of John the Baptist. That iconography endowed Salome with a certain degree of shame and conscientiousness, changing the way in which her physical beauty could be considered.

The fourth chapter, The Seducer-Destroyer Salome of Nineteenth Century Art, illustrates how the image of Salome was constructed in art and literature in order to neutralize the social, political and economic challenges created by the nascent feminist movements. It is during the nineteenth century, particularly in France, that Salome’s ideological role and image as an independent figure were shaped.

The second part of the book, Salome and the Head of John the Baptist in Artists’ Self-Portraits, examines how the image of Salome was used in the creation of personal myths. Chapter five, Painting: Titian, Bernard, Moreau, demonstrates the construction of the self-portrait in decapité and in disguise and examines the significance and hidden meaning of each self-portrait. I examine artworks that create a personal legend through the story of Salome and John the Baptist. In those representations, the artists I examine—Titian, Emile Bernard and Gustave Moreau—often convey a hidden biographical message as well as their philosophical stance on art. By portraying themselves in the guise of the beheaded John the Baptist these artists further complicate and personalize the imagery and story of Salome.

Chapter six, Poetry: Stéphane Mallarmé, studies the self-portrait in literature, concentrating specifically on Mallarmé’s unfinished poem Les Noces d’Hérodiade. In this poem Mallarmé fully reinvents the mythical image of Hérodiade/ Salome as a femme fatale in order to create an image of himself. Mallarmé’s untraditional Salome-Hérodiade becomes a metaphor for the poet’s mythical ego, his inner world and his philosophy of creativity.

Part three, Salome in Story, Drama and Music, explores literary examples and their manifestations in visual arts and music. Salome’s Dance in Flaubert’s “Herodias:” Pictorial or Ekphrastic? (chapter seven), is a detailed study of the dancing Salome and her relationship to the process of creativity in Flaubert’s short story. I consider the history of the image and the complexity of Flaubert’s creative process, which, partly subconsciously, partly consciously, reshaped an already established mythical image of Salome, making her a dangerous object of masculine desire.

Chapter eight, Wilde’s Salome, is an in-depth literary analysis of Wilde’s play Salome. Wilde’s Salome appears almost androgynous and can be taken as a symbol of the writer’s reflections on life and art. On a less sophisticated level, his Salome becomes a striptease dancer performing the dance of Seven Veils, which became famous after Wilde’s invention. Wilde’s characterization of Salome’s dance and its seductive effect on Herod colorfully and explicitly illuminated what many of his predecessors had only suggested about her nature. This characterization contributed greatly to the propagation of Salome’s myth in the twentieth century and to her reputation as a seducer and destroyer.

Chapter nine, Wilde, Beardsley, Strauss, discusses several interpretations of the play. The “androgynous” Salome of Oscar Wilde is highlighted in visual form in the work of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations I examine in this chapter. In music, my study is centered around Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, based on Wilde’s play. In this opera the character of Salome is depicted through music, and music enhances her with features that make her an even more complex, multidimensional, and ultimately tragic character. Overall in this chapter, I demonstrate how Aubrey Beardsley and Richard Strauss selectively focused on some of the play’s possible interpretations in order to create their own artistic masterpieces.

There are many more works of art and literature, both minor and major, which feature Salome as a character and either contributed to the various myths of Salome or were instrumental in their propagation. Unfortunately, the constraints of time and space do not allow for an examination of all instances of the Salome myth.

For example, the main text of my book does not study any of the appearances of Salome in Eastern Europe or Russia. It is worth noting, however, that Salome made a significant entrance into Russian culture with the translation of Wilde’s play, which inspired its performance in theaters and also a film with Alla Azimova in the role of Salome. Salome made a particularly distinctive appearance in Russian poetry, especially in that of the twentieth century.i In Russia, the image of Salome was not invented or reinvented, but rather propagated in the form that she had already taken earlier in the minds of other artists and poets.

This book strives to challenge the social stigmas attached to Salome, and it also questions the notion of social stigma in general. Part of the goal is to explore why and how history attaches such stigma to certain individuals, nations, and cultures—in short, how society at large elects its demons and chooses its scapegoats. Perhaps human social structures are such that they require an enemy in order to reinforce who we are and whom we want to be. Perhaps Salome has been one of those enemies, a vital figure in the structure of societies struggling to establish their ideologies and shape their cultures.ii


i See Appendix 2.
ii See the theory of the scapegoat developed by the French philosopher René Girard

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