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Salomé as History and Fetish
by Gail P. Streete
The modern history of the character known as Salomé, together with her dance, really begins in 1891, when Oscar Wilde wrote a drama in French called Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act, the title role allegedly intended for Sarah Bernhardt. Because, since the time of Elizabeth I, the Lord Chamberlain refused to license plays containing biblical characters, the play was not produced in England. Although an English translation, with the famous black-and-white illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, came out in 1894, it was not until 1896 that the play was performed, in its original French, in Paris. The Salomé of Wilde’s play is cold and virginal, but with an unaccountable lust for the ascetic prophet Jokanaan (John the Baptist), who rebuffs her as the “daughter of Babylon, daughter of Sodom,” because of the adulterous marriage of her mother, Herodias, and her stepfather, Herod. Because his rejection thwarts Salomé’s desire to touch Jokanaan and to kiss him on the mouth, she plots to kill him by fulfilling the lecherous Herod’s request for a dance—the infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils”—which exists only as a brief stage direction. Having gotten Herod to agree to give her whatever she asks, she performs her dance. At the dance’s end, she demands the head of the prophet Jokanaan “on a silver charger.” Over Herod’s protests and growing revulsion (“She is monstrous, thy daughter!” he tells Herodias), her request is granted. Presented with the head, she gloats that now she can kiss the Baptist’s mouth—even bite it. Horrified, Herod cries, “Kill that woman!” His soldiers crush her beneath their shields.
Wilde’s portrayal of Salomé has been so influential that we must remember that he himself was heavily influenced by previous portrayals of the character. The 19th century was thick with Decadent and Symbolist representations of Salomé, sometimes known by the alternate name of Herodias. Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll portrays Herodias in a ghostly cavalcade, tossing the head of John the Baptist into the air and kissing his lips. Gustave Flaubert’s novel Hérodiade may have provided the outline story of Wilde’s play; his novel Salammbô provides the image of a virginal priestess performing a provocative dance. J.-K. Huysmans’ novel, À Rebours (Against the Grain), portrays a decadent hero who obsessively contemplates a painting of Salomé by Gustave Moreau, whose own fascination with the character resulted in several paintings of a bejeweled figure dancing partially nude or clad in filmy draperies—the most striking of which, “L’Apparition” (“The Apparition”), depicts Salomé in mid-dance, pointing to the bloody head of John the Baptist appearing in the air.
Moreau stands in a long and continuing line of painters and sculptors who portrayed Salomé, beginning with the first known representation of her in a Greek manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew from Sinope, dating from the 6th century. The illustration portrays the passage from Matthew (14:1-12) in which the dance and the beheading occur. But Salomé is not dancing here. Her static figure is smaller than that of the reclining Herod, perhaps to indicate her lower status or her young age. Expressionless, she receives the head of John from a servant. It is with the Romanesque period (1000-1200), that sculptors in particular start portraying the dancer, sometimes swaying sinuously, and in one case, on a column in a Benedictine cloister, with Herod chucking her under the chin. A mosaic from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice (14th century) shows a richly clad Salomé dancing while holding the platter with John’s head, poised on her own head with one hand, like a woman carrying a market basket. These are some of Moreau’s many predecessors; his successors continue to portray Salomé and her dance almost uniformly as a sexually provocative catalyst for the death of the righteous John, over whose head she exults. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks largely to Moreau and Wilde, Salomé becomes enshrined in artistic representation as the quintessential femme fatale.
Gail P. Streete is professor emerita of religious studies, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee. She is a frequent writer on biblical and early Christian women, including three books—Her Image of Salvation (1992), The Strange Woman (1998), and Redeemed Bodies (2009)—and is currently at work on a book, The Salomé Project.