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A Curious Mother's Day Story, Salome & Herodias



Reprinted with permission from The Perspicacious Woman OnLine©
April, 2003 issue, Volume 3:Number 2
Publisher, The Daisy Shop, women’s couture resale

Barbara Nell

First, a disclaimer:

This article requires information about John the Baptist, whose life and works and words are holy, divinely inspired, to Christians. The sources I’ve accessed are religious, historical, literary, exegetic, and anecdotal. In order to avoid disrespect for the sacredness of the words and concepts with which Christians hold The Gospels and with which Jews hold The Torah, I’ve renamed both ‘translated redactions.’ I also use the euphemism, monotheistic god, to avoid any disrespect to any deity and religion. This is an essay designed to entertain and inform you, Dear Reader, not to cause any religious discussion or foment.

Second, a thank you:

To friend Pam and friend Vanessa, both of whom got my research juices going on Salome, whom, I believed, was trivial, too trivial even for our newsletter. It boiled down to “Who did she do the belly dance for?” I hadn’t a clue, because I didn’t think she was real. They both assured me she was a real person. I checked it out. Yup, she was real and...

…she may have danced or may not have danced. But, if she did dance, it wasn’t a belly dance that she did, nor was it a tap, the tango, or the quick step. The belly dance aspect was imagined in the late 19th century by some artistic guy, and we’ll get there, later, when it’s timely. She did perform, that much is true, and she performed for the host, her stepfather, at the instigation of the hostess, her mother, and their banquet guests.

It was an entertainment interlude, and it occurred about the 1st century AD in a castle located in area called The Galilee. She may have performed in a play about some Greek mythological character or she may have been the one non-Bedouin ( a guest) in a troop of Bedouin entertainers who did folk dances that non-Bedouins enjoyed seeing. If it was the former, the structure of the play was rigid: it was a pantomime, with stringed instrumentals to keep the story line going, mime actors of both genders, all adults, and young children acrobatics of both genders. Everyone was masked. This was a troop of professional entertainers on the payroll of biggies, not a traveling group (a type not yet invented). They were probably on the payroll of her stepfather and she had time to practice with them before the banquet.

If it was the latter, it was a dance, one with a lot of whirling and head tossing, by females in heavy blue robes with cowls, and there was a flute accompaniment. The company did not live in The Galilee, but were nomads from the desert between The Galilee and Arabia, who had come by request of the biggie. It is unlikely that Bedouin dancers were involved in this banquet, for they had to walk a fine line in their desert migrations, land that abutted both The Galilee and Arabia at that time There was bad blood between Aretas IV King of Arabia and Antipas, stepfather of Salome, Tetrarch of The Galilee, the place where the banquet and the entertainment took place and the place where Salome lived. And, Salome would not have had time to practice the whirling and head tossing before the banquet.

So, it was a Roman style play about Greek mythology that was probably performed as the intermediate event between courses or the closing event of a posh banquet. The host, her stepfather, was a Herod we’ll call Antipas, (not as high as a King) and the hostess, her mother, was named Herodias (a former Queen, divorced from her 1st husband, Phillip, a King, and now married to a mere Tetrarch, making her a Tetrarchess, I guess). These were minor players in the times’ political stage and the definition of ‘posh’ was relative to their stature…minor. The guest list contained: nobles visiting from Rome, Roman nobles stationed in The Galilee by Rome, aristocrats from The Galilee and maybe Judea, and Antipas’ Steward, Chuza. Some sources say the banquet was thrown by Herodias because it was Antipas’ birthday, an unnecessary embellishment, to my way of thinking. Most sources are silent about the reason for the banquet, so I tend to go with most when it’s a fact such as this kind.

Any banquet takes preparation, whether you’re a Queen, a Tetrarchess, or merely the wife of a mope. So, along with the timing, guest list, menu, food preparation, and seating plan, Herodias prepared for the entertainment. She had to decide that Salome’s participation in the entertainment would be the thing to do long before the banquet took place. Herodias is described as a savvy kind of gal by the benign tellers of the tale (she’s vilified by most) and Salome was her only child (by Phillip), so she probably made time to watch Salome rehearse. A lot was riding on Salome being real real good. Nothing anywhere says whether Salome wanted to be a part of the entertainment or was unwilling to be a part of the entertainment.

Herodias planned a staid, Roman affair. It could not have been a bacchanal type banquet (similar to the present Wild On’s on E!), as some sources suggest. There were stringent Roman rules about highborn women and what they can attend and do in while in attendance. Herodias was high born and from Judea. (Antipas, her second husband, was not as high born, coming from an Idumean father and possibly a Samarian mother.)

Salome was just a kid at the time of the banquet. Some sources say she was a teenager, but they have to in order for other parts of the legend to fit. (We’ll get to the other parts later.) I doubt if she was a nubile teenager. She was royalty, a Princess, in fact, with very good blood on her mother’s side, Maccabean blood, which was respected even by Rome, who, by the way, had conquered Judea (and The Galilee) long before this time and made this area a part of their Empire. Modesty and chastity were required for this type female from a Roman standpoint and a Maccabean standpoint (her bloodline was matriarchal). She had to be dutiful, respectful, and learn at her mother’s knee, an important custom amongst the Maccabean women. She was a good kid. So, she couldn’t have been a teenager and allowed to perform. It would diminish her future value in the marriage market, Roman or otherwise, and it would have been a sin. I would opine she had to be less than Nadia Comaneci’s age when she blew away the Olympic judges in 1976, but she was probably just as agile.

It’s probable that Herodias recognized her daughter’s agility long before the banquet, for kids have a tendency to display what they’re good at long before there’s a use for the tendency. It could have been a genetic throwback to the time before the Maccabees were promoted to highborn, the time when the men were just about the best guerilla fighters in Judea and found the mountainous regions around Judea excellent terrain to entice their foes into combat. She was probably proud of this tendency and tedious of this tendency (“Watch me, Momma,” once too often can be tedious.) and savvy enough to see a utilization for her own good. This also pre-supposes that Herodias might have had more contact in Salome’s upbringing than Roman highborn mothers, for Maccabean women were responsible for (both gender) children to ‘learn at their knee’ a minimum of 613 rules the monotheistic god required of adherents, or that there was a lot of contact between highborn mothers and their daughters at that time. In either case, Herodias planned the banquet and the entertainment and included her agile daughter in the entertainment, making sure Salome rehearsed and would do a good job in the acrobatic kid part of the troop…a multi-tasking woman for sure.

Protocol at posh and formal banquets where Roman mucky mucks were invited was stringent. This would have been very important to Antipas, also. He had been raised in Rome (maybe even a hostage child) and the land he administered at the time of the banquet had been bequeathed to him by Rome. Augustus (of the Cleopatra story) had handled the apportioning of Antipas’ father’s enormous estate when he, known as Herod the Great, died. Antipas was not happy with the way Poppa’s estate was apportioned, felt he had gotten the short stick amongst his four brothers. (He had.) He would have been very, very Roman at this Roman banquet in order to make nice and have this get back to Rome.

The men would have reclined on the equivalent of 1st century Barco-Loungers and ate lovely things and drank lovely wine moderately, while trading amusing stories and quips and bantering amongst each other. I’m not sure just what bantering is, but I am sure they bantered. They would have been arranged in a horseshoe U pattern. The women guests and their hostess would have sat on chairs and I couldn’t figure out where the chairs were placed, within the horseshoe in a line or outside the horseshoe in a line. But in any case, they would have sat on fancy, but hard backed, chairs in a line and would not have eaten or drunken wine, but I suggest they may have bantered. Their job was to just sit, all gussied up and smellin’ good. (They would eat and drink, later, when they got home or when the guests left, depending on your perspective.)

Salome could not have been invited. If she had been invited, she would have left her fancy, hard-backed chair vacant in order to get into costume and perform. Antipas would have noticed the empty chair and have asked someone, “Where did the kid go?” And, someone would have said, “She’s going to perform.” That would have taken the drama out of this next part of the story. Let’s agree; she was not invited to the banquet.

At the proper time, the play was performed, and the audience clapped after it was over. Antipas complimented the performers, then singled one out. Because it was Salome that was singled out, I believe she was one of the masked acrobats. It only makes sense. Antipas apparently didn’t recognize the stepdaughter he had raised since infancy as the excellent acrobat in the play. Rather, he thought her one of the professionals, for if he had recognized her, he wouldn’t have offered the giftreward. He just would have said, “Good job, sweetie. Go get washed. You’ll catch cold.” Therefore, because he didn’t recognize her, he made a magnanimous gesture (It’s not unlikely that he was showing off for the guests, for Antipas was a doodle-head, didn’t think things through. We’ll get to that, later.), and he offered the acrobat-Salome anything she desired as a gift from him for her fine performance. This is exactly what Herodias had planned to happen. She knew her guy pretty well and she knew her little girl real well. The benign tellers were right: she was a savvy gal.

Since all sources attribute what comes next as engendered by Herodias, the acrobat-Salome had to have asked him to wait a minute and had to have gone to the chair line, where her mother and the other women were sitting, otherwise Herodias would not have been associated with what comes next. (It would have been only Salome who would have been associated with what comes next.). So, the mother and daughter had to have conferred quietly, while Antipas (and the guests) watched. Perhaps, Salome said, “Euwww,” as kids do when they hear something revolting; or perhaps, not. She was a 1st century kid and they may have been different from 21st century kids. I think not. Kids are kids. She said “Euwww.” Dutifully, she listened closely to what her mother told her and she probably repeated it back to Herodias, so that she got it right and straight. Then, she, the acrobat-Salome, came back to Antipas with the gift idea: the head of the long time prisoner John (who later became John the Baptist, but who was merely the prisoner John at this time) on a platter (which was probably not a platter, but a charger).

It’s possible that he recognized Salome at this point. It doesn’t really matter. I do know he knew he had been set up by his wife, Herodias, via this acrobat-Salome, when he heard the performance reward. And he was startled and embarrassed and in a public quandary. It’s possible he questioned the acrobat-Salome with an ‘are you kidding? kind of question, while looking in Herodias’ direction, who either shrugged her shoulders or nodded ‘yes.’ From a legal standpoint, he did not have to honor this acrobat-Salome’s request, for it wasn’t hers. It was Herodias.’ It is possible that Chuza, his Steward, jumped in at this point, for he had been financing John’s nascent ministry through his wife, Elizabeth, but it’s just as possible, he did not, for that’s not how it went down.

Everyone at the banquet knew there had been a big mad between Herodias and Antipas regarding John for a long, long time. She had wanted him killed outright for talking often and badly about her and her marriage to Antipas to everyone and anyone who would listen to him. John had labeled it incestuous and it was, kind of, but by only a technicality, the small print in a big, long contract. Herodias’ first husband, the Herod we’re calling Phillip, was Antipas’ half brother. They shared the same father, Herod The Great, but had different mothers. Phillip was still living in Judea where he was King (Rome gave him a large portion of his father’s estate, larger than Antipas..) and as long as Phillip lived, Herodias and Antipas had an incestuous marriage. As soon as he died, it would be an okay marriage. But, he hadn’t died, yet.

Although it was the gossip that bothered Herodias (A good spin doctor would have helped, but they were 2000 years down the road in development.), it was the religious twist John put on the technical incest that bothered Antipas. John attributed all the stuff that had gone wrong in The Galilee since they married (and stuff had gone wrong, for Antipas was a doodle-head) to the marriage. And, John said that the monotheistic god was angry with her, more than Antipas, because of her good Maccabean blood (a mix of Idumean and Samarian blood results in a person that the monotheistic god doesn’t expect much from), and would stay angry with her and get more so, so the anger would spill over to the whole of The Galilee, until she and Antipas split (or, I guess, until Phillip died, a factor that was out of her hands).

People listened to that kind of stuff at that time and in that place and they got real scared. A monotheistic god’s anger was a terrible thing. Famine, drought, disease, pestilence, flood, invasion, even eclipse – anything could happen when a monotheistic god was angry. While there hadn’t been famine, drought, disease, pestilence, flood, invasion, or even an eclipse in The Galilee, Antipas had lost a war, his first, with Nabatea, their neighbor in Arabia.

Herodias could have been a vulnerable position should important people have listened to John’s predictions. Luckily for her, the important people had other things on their mind. Antipas said ‘no’ to killing John and ‘yes’ to imprisoning him, believing that would shut John up. Some sources said Antipas had a feeling that John’s predictions were true; others said he had a feel for the monotheistic deity. Still others say he was merely acting like a political animal, notably, a fox. At any rate, John was not killed, but imprisoned, and he had been languishing in the prison for many years at the time of the banquet.

Now, killing a local prisoner was no big deal anywhere in the 1st century world of the Roman Empire and having a prisoner killed to reward an agile acrobat was stretching the reward idea, but... it could work. The thing is that the head on a plattercharger was the note that made it a bigger deal. This touch was a gruesome, certainly barbaric, dramatic thing and would cause a scandal and gossip all over Judea and in Rome, what Antipas did not need if he were to ever get any more land from his dead father’s estate from Rome. (And it did, for Flavius Josephus in his book, “Antiquities,” writing to and for Rome about 100 years after the event ,included the event for it was still so juicy. This, by the way, is how we know about some parts of it.) (An important question occurs to me and that is this: How and where did Herodias get this notion? Two ideas come to mind: (1) the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa and their fight to death: Perseus won. He decapitated Medusa and waved her head around and took it a bunch of places as a talisman. It must have been awful after a time. Maybe that’s where she got it, for she was well educated. (2) A similar event took place in Rome 50 years earlier: Pemejus, a political competitor to Julius, lost his political battle, and his foes brought Julius, the winning Caesar, his head. She might have heard this gossip. Perhaps, she then pragmatically adapted decapitation to the situation at hand. Beheading was a popular type of death and an honorable type of execution for criminals and warriors amongst the Romans and the Maccabees and the Arabians. This, I discovered, from plunking around on the Internet to some very weird websites. I don’t recommend you check this out for yourself. Truthfully, I cannot imagine where she got this embellishment. One of these weird websites calls her talented.)

The doodle-head complied.

A messenger was sent to the fortress named Macharerus (now called Mukawir) in an area called The Perea (now part of Amman, Jordan) where John was imprisoned. A nameless guard cut off his head, and got a messenger to convey it to the castle somewhere in The Galilee, where the banquet guests were waiting, the males still bantering with one another, I guess, to pass the time; the females still sitting quietly on their hard chairs, smellin’ good. The acrobat-Salome probably went off somewhere to bathe and change clothes, then returned to the banquet room to stand next to her (talented) Momma or stand with the performers. The guards put the headless body somewhere, waited for further orders.

I couldn’t find out how far away the area The Parea was from The Galilee, for I couldn’t pin down exactly what city the castle was located in the area known as The Galilee, then, the area where the banquet occurred. Let’s believe it wasn’t terribly far, so the messenger conveying the head could get from there to there quick. He arrived and a kitchen servant brought a plattercharger (No one knows if it was a platter made out of silver, gold, porcelain, or stoneware. In fact, no one cared. Furthermore, it may not have been a platter, but a charger, which is larger than a plate and smaller than a platter and rested under a plate at a table service and was often of precious metal. Since it’s a Roman banquet, people took morsels of this and that from servant-held chargers, didn’t have a table service at all. They were reclining.) Another servant, a serving type, brought the head to the banquet hall and stood in front of Antipas. It’s possible he directed the servant to acrobat-Salome, who took the plattercharger and gave it to her Mother. One redactor source makes Herodias even more gruesome stating: she got a sword and stabbed the tongue. This is an embellishment that even Flavius Josephus didn’t believe, so he doesn’t mention it. What she really did with it, I don’t know. (People who thought John had a direct line to the monotheistic god requested his body and his head from Antipas, who released both parts to them. They took it to an area called Samaria, which was close to The Perea, and buried it.)

What happened after this part of the banquet took place, I don’t know. I imagine some guy yawned and said, “It’s been quite an evening. I think it’s time to get going.” And the guests all went to their lodgings. It’s probable that Antipas and Herodias had a long conversation, after the guests left. When they were alone in their private rooms, he probably opened the conversation with: “We never talk anymore, Herodias. Tell me what’s going on with you.” Salome, who had been up long past her normal bedtime, was probably overtired and went to sleep or was put to sleep immediately.

And there you have it. Salome didn’t dance, didn’t wear veils, and had a strong bond with her Mother.

To discover how the belly dance became associated with Salome, we have to veer away from her. It’s Herodias and John who carry the story line forward.

At the time of the banquet, Herodias was the 2nd wife of Antipas, and they had been married for about 10 years. (Antipas was the only father Salome had known.) Salome’s biological father was Phillip, who was King of Judea, a large land mass, much larger than the area called The Galilee, and he and Herodias were divorced when Salome was about 1 year old. Herodias had been an important wife when Phillip was first made King by Rome because of her Maccabean blood. The Maccabees had been rulers of Judea long before Phillip came on board, but through a lot of circumstances, Judea was ruled by the Herod bunch and had accepted Rome’s yoke by that time. The Maccabees were prolific (as was Herod The Great), and there was a large pool of eligible Maccabean women for rulers to marry. It was a stable region in Rome’s empire. In any event, the divorce was with Rome’s permission. Phillip was allowed to marry some one else with Rome’s permission, and I didn’t check out whom. He never asked for visitation rights.

Some sources say Antipas first met Herodias when Herodias was on a trip to Rome with Phillip petitioning Rome for something or another at the same time that Antipas was in Rome (alone) petitioning Rome, yet again, for the title of King and more land from his father’s estate, neither of which Rome never granted him in his lifetime. I don’t think it matters how they met. They met, they talked, a deal was struck.

I don’t know why Herodias left Queenship of Judea to become a Tetrarch’s wife. There are always sources that attribute lust to this sort of situation, and these sources do arise in this story, some attributing lust to Herodias, others attributing lust to Antipas. Personally, I find lust a poor reason. A Queen, one of royal blood, just doesn’t think lust. She thinks power and lineage. A tetrarch, although not as powerful as a King, doesn’t have to go far from his little castle, even as far as Judea, to satisfy a lustful thought. An unhappy Tetrarch thinks power and lineage, too. Maybe it was her Maccabean blood and her Maccabean ties that Antipas thought would help him become a King of a landmass that included Judea, which her ancestors ruled before Rome put the Herods there. Maybe she thought The Galilee plus Judea is bigger than just Judea. Maybe she thought that The Galilee plus Arabia, which abutted The Galilee, is bigger than Judea should Antipas go to war for the Arabian territory. In any event, she left Phillip before the divorce (which came through quickly) and went to Antipas’ puny area, The Galilee.

She also jumped the gun. Antipas was not yet rid of his first wife, Phasaelis, when Herodias and the baby arrived. And, he hadn’t petitioned Rome to get rid of Phasaelis and marry Herodias. Although Phasaelis was a Princess by blood and the daughter of a powerful neighbor and King, Aretas IV of Nabatea (Arabia), Antipas decided to circumvent Rome by merely ‘putting her aside,’ an ignominy. This was not nice. Phasaelis went home to Poppa (and took the kids, if there were any with her and Antipas) who bided his time a bit, then attacked The Galilee, because of the dishonor.

Troops from all of Herod the Great’s sons (half-brothers to a man) jumped in to help The Galilean troops, even Phillip (inherited family land was a big thing; a former wife was nothing) and Roman legions jumped in to help, too. But land was lost and that, by definition, means The Galileans lost the war. He never did divorce Phasaelis and she never returned to him.

Herodias stayed put and she and Antipas married (with Rome’s permission, whose attitude toward provinces was very pragmatic: the war is over; they lost; let ’em marry; who gives a damn) and lived in a castle somewhere in The Galilee with the baby.

Antipas’ reputation went from an annoying pest to miserable in Rome’s eyes because of this double screw up (stupidly and unnecessarily dishonoring a neighbor’s daughter thereby incurring an unnecessary troop expense on Rome’s tab and loosing land to a King who was not conquered by Rome). He decided to Make It Better. Tiberius was now the Caesar and Antipas decided to build a city to honor him. He commandeered land in The Galilee and his construction people began building a city. But, Antipas and his building contractors either didn’t do their homework, or if they did, they didn’t think it through. The land upon which the city was being built was a cemetery, sacred ground to every person in the world then as well as today. There was an uprising amongst the folk that local troops could not quell. Again, Rome had to help Antipas out, for Judea wouldn’t, since they sided with the people, not Antipas. The people were quelled and the city was built. It remained uninhabited. No one would go there to live no matter how sweet the pot Antipas created (free homes, free land, tax abatement). Rome had to send troops to forcibly move families to Tiberius and to guard them so they wouldn’t move out in the dark of the night. Flavius Josephus liked this morsel a lot when he heard of it. He checked around and then comments that riff-raff were recruited to populate the city. He observes that even the riff-raff were afraid of the monotheistic god, so local holy people made a rule: the new settlers would only be defiled for 7 days, then everything would be okay.

And life went on in The Galilee.

John, during some of this, had been going about his business in The Galilee. One particular thing he did caught on amongst the folk. No one knew what to call it, so it had two different names: sprinkling and lave-ing, both of which were already accepted cleansing rites in most, if not all, religions before that time and during that time in that area and most of the known world. Water was always the cleansing agent and John
used the nearby Jordan River as the sprinkling and lave-ing site. What John did was total body immersion, a new twist, one the people liked a lot, for it made sense to them and made them feel good and purified from sins committed previously. This total body immersion always occurred after John would talk about sinning and give definitions. He would call for penitents, people who wanted to cleanse themselves. They would step forward and get in a line, so he could do them one-by-one. He had set himself up as a person who knew what the monotheistic deity expected of good folk (mostly it was to stop acting like Romans and revert to the Galilean ways, the ones prevalent before Rome took over the area). While he was in prison and after his death, other people did the immersion for him. What he had said before he was imprisoned was credible to the folk.

But then, John was imprisoned and killed years after he was imprisoned.

Very soon a very lot of other things happened in The Galilee. These events were written down and pondered and interpreted by brilliant, eloquent, and sincere men, three of whom decided that John and what he said and his immersion twist was a ceremony that would be important to incorporate as a ritual for their testimonials. They were the redactors whose words have been translated and pondered for centuries. Their decision caused his death to be discussed (and his childhood, parents, vocation, inspiration, relationships, etc. to be determined) and this is how Herodias’ name was never forgotten.

The earliest redactor, a stickler for details, had a problem with her daughter’s name, when he read Flavius Josephus, who says ‘a damsel, the daughter of Herodias, brought the head…’ in his book to Rome. This was not good enough for him. He did some easy homework, for Herodias’ royal lineage was known and available. He determined that Herodias’ daughter was named Salome. This was not good homework. Herodias was Maccabean. No Maccabee, male or female, would ever name a child for a still living person, let alone the actual name of a relative, this case, a blood aunt, who was living at the time of her daughter’s birth. But, it’s all we have, so she must remain misnamed Salome (which means ‘peace,’ a nice touch, don’t you think?) when John’s beheading is talked about and when Herodias’ progeny is included.

And this is how Salome and Herodias and John were tied together forever more. Many centuries have to pass by before the triangle comes into focus again. We have to wait for society to go from antiquity all the way to modern…at least 1,970 years or so. More specifically, we have to wait for a religion to formalize; we have to wait until John’s contributions become important and incorporated; we have to wait for churches to be invented; we have to wait for representational art to be used for something other than decorative purposes; we have to allow for the Bubonic Plague interlude when absolutely nothing happened except the death of millions; we have to wait for literacy to occur; we have to wait for Gutenberg and his printing press; we have to wait for portraiture to be invented.

Once churches were invented, representational art was applied as a method to tell the stories to the illiterate devout people. The triangle story was not as popular as other stories, so it was represented only some times. The scene chosen was most always was when the plattercharger is proffered takes place. No one character of the triangle is more important that the other. It’s the story behind the scene that’s important, and that is John’s death (but not as a martyr, I don’t think, but I may be wrong). Typical friezes and frescos from churches in the early 14th show the scene with figures that are medieval in demeanor and costume. That’s what the medieval people needed; that’s what they got. Their eyes could roam the church for something to center on, if their attention drifted from the devotions at hand.

Everything gets pretty quiet everywhere, beginning 1330, when the first Bubonic Plague episode begins and we have to wait a long time, about 150 years, for normalcy to occur.

In 1485, the beheading surfaces. Portraiture had been invented by then, and art has gone into homes of wealthy people, who ask artists to do pictures for them, often of them and their family members. One type of portraiture allowed the viewer to be a voyeur, to glimpse an intimate scene, a freeze frame, if you will, from a larger story, if the artist was good. Religious art was a popular theme. The artist selected the motif and there was a lot of symbolism to get the whole story line into the canvas. It’s Salome and the plattercharger that’s chosen, when this subject is chosen at all, and truth be told, it’s lousy, static portraiture. She’s not portrayed as a child, but she’s not portrayed as a woman, either. “Damsel,” was apparently interpreted as that twilight zone a female has between childhood and woman. I don’t know why the subject matter was chosen by the patron or the artist, who apparently just couldn’t get into ‘it.’ I guess my opinion was shared by the patrons from 500+ years back, for this theme dies out.

John and his sainthood, not his death or Herodias or Salome, become the theme of most art, and we have to wait until 1630 to find the others of the triangle depicted again.

In 1630, a blockbuster piece of art is produced (my opinion) that asks you to consider Herodias, not John. It’s my absolute favorite, by a guy named Francesco del Cairo, “Herodias with Head of John the Baptist.” It is so different from all others than came before (and after). Is she exhausted, meditative, musing, or in a trance? A closer look might surprise you. Could she possibly be holding his tongue while on the verge of stroking his hair? I believe she is. What could del Cairo have been thinking? What is he asking us to believe about Herodias? Frankly, I don’t wanna go there. No one else did either, for depictions of Herodias (and Salome) simply stop until the 1800’s and John in his sainthood continue...with one exception.

Because of a single painting of Herodias by Paul Delaroche in 1843, it’s the literary arts, the poets and authors and playwrights, who pick up the story and fiction supercedes reality. Herodias, first, and Salome, next, sans John, are the motifs for the first time. They move from real people to fictional characters.

Delaroche shows Herodias as exotic (read, non-European) (The euphemism used for most any type non-European at that time was Occidental.), regal (He did his homework.), authentically dressed (more good homework), and very, very lovely. The look on her face is open to interpretation. Has the grotesque event occurred or not yet? Is she serene or is she challenging us to question her? I don’t know who is represented in the background, for it certainly cannot be Salome. Herodias is a person in her own right. I would like to tie Delaroche’s interpretation to having viewed del Cairo (although I don’t know if this occurred, not having the resources to track the provenance of the del Cairo picture to align its location with Delaroche’s life).

Apparently Heinrich Heine, a German poet of some renown, was enchanted by the picture. He wrote a poem in 1843, “Atta Troll,” which sources say is a mock epic about Herodias. I was unable to find an English translation, so I have to accept what sources say as true. What I do know is that an epic is a very long and twisted story (the Iliad and the Odyssey are epics) about fanciful adventures of a protagonist (usually heroic) in pursuit of good end. How Heine got enough ideas about Herodias, who was minor in the first place and arcane by this time, to go on and on about her pursuit of an end, good or not good, I don’t know. I guess that’s called talent. In any event, he catapults Herodias (and the triangle) back into the minds of artistic people and they make her (and the triangle) interesting enough for public contemplation.

This mock epic and Delaroche’s painting next enchanted Stephane Mallarme, another poet of some renown, a Frenchman. He got his juices flowing and wrote a poem in 1869, “Herodiade,” whose English translation I was unable to find. I have absolutely no idea what his poem says. Critics say she described sultry (for the first time). I have to believe that Mallarme associated Occidental with sultry, not an uncommon association amongst fanciful European guys. Herodias is changing to heroic (maybe if Heine’s epic shows her to be this), Occidental, and sultry (read sexy).

All this got a French artist (of some renown) all excited. Gustave Moreau pondered the triangle and centered on Salome, instead of Herodias. He figured if Herodias was sultry, then Salome was more sultry. I don’t know why, but that’s what he did. He worked and worked this theme and ended up with a bunch of pictures with her as the (undressed) focal point, a first in Salome’s depictions, and threw in John’s head to make it all understandable. They were finished in 1876. All are amazing. The very last time Salome was the chosen subject matter was in 16th century (bad) portraiture. She’s always holding the plattercharger and has a boring look on her face and is all dressed up in 16th century costume. What the hell did Heine’s mock epic and Mallarme’s poem allude to with regard to Salome? I don’t know.

Anyway, Gustave Flaubert, a French writer of some renown, apparently read Heine and Mallarme and saw the picture interpretations of Delaroche and Moreau. All inspired him to write a short story in 1877 about Herodias, which indicates excellent homework, by the way. This, I read, and in this short story, she is called a Jezebel, albeit an aging one, for the first time. Her daughter is described as resembling her mother in her youth. You can read it, too. Go to It’s now fictional open season on Herodias and by association, her daughter, Salome.

Then came Joris-Karl Huysman, who liked what Heine, Mallarme, and Flaubert wrote and liked Delaroche’s and Moreau’s pictures. He went with Salome, not Herodias, in 1884, for his essay, “Against the Grain.” The essay is really prose poetry in the style of “The Song of Solomon,” real, real sexy. The essay was labeled decadent after it was published. You can read it, too, if and when you get in the mood for 19th century decadence. Go to

In the 19th century, certain people loved decadent stuff, especially the artistic types who felt stultified with conservative stuff and who felt they had to push the envelope of public taste. This decadent Salome idea percolated for ten years in Oscar Wilde’s mind before his play, “Salome,” was performed in 1893. An interesting touch was his collaboration with Aubrey Beardsley to do playbill artwork. Wilde was jailed it was so damn decadent.

Within a year after Wilde’s play, Beardsley came out with a folio of images of Salome. It’s racy for the bare breasts and belly button, but it’s also a curiously clunky, non-sexy posing of Salome. Why is her midriff covered? Why is she wearing high heeled shoes with bows at the ankle? What the hell is going on here? Mere titillation, nothing more. Shame on you, Beardsley.

Everything rested until 1905, when Richard Strauss, a German of music renown, chose Salome as his opera subject. His librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian poet of some renown, put words to the decadent musical motifs. A costume designer, whose name I could not find, turned her eastern Byzantine and gave her a harem twist and a costume of 7 veils. A choreographer had her shimmy (belly dance). In the first performance of “Salome,’ Marie Wittich, described as an ample soprano Salome, refused to do the dance or wear the costume. A nameless ballerina accommodated the scene and this became a tradition each time the opera was performed. One critic, a word wizard, called Strauss the apostle of decadence. This made the people want to see it for themselves. Strauss’ “Salome” was performed 50 times in the first two years after it was written in opera houses all over the world.

This chronicle has ended.

PS. A beheaded John, not yet a saint, is so very popular that I had to find a depiction of John with his head on. Caravaggio was quite taken with him and did a lot of versions of John with his head on.

PS. One female artist, Fra Lippinni, an Italian woman, did work on the triangle. I am disappointed with Fra. Although she chose Salome to be focal, she dressed her modestly in Medieval costume, twirling her skirts. It’s a pretty nothing picture that says more about Lippinni and her lack of inspiration and imagination (She is technically apt, I think.) than the subject matter. I think she should have tried harder to ‘get into it.’ She was a daughter once and may have been the mother of a daughter at the time the picture was painted.

About the Author: Barbara has been a history buff all her life.

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