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Judith & Salome in Art

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Herodias's Revenge's
Juan de Flandes c. 1496
During the latter renaissance (1500-1700) Judith and Salome (as well as a multitude of Lucretias) gave noble women of the period something to masquerade as. The quasi-religious portrait was an attempt to justify secular portraiture, but very quickly became a sort of charades for posterity, some of it quite cheeky. It is fascinating that women of the time would have wanted to be characterized by their descendants as the vixen clutching a severed head. Salome was a little less popular in this regard, as her motives were a bit less noble than that of Judith. Judith, however, exemplified the ultimate sacrifice, that of her virtue (both hymenally & that of her soul) for the sake of her tribe's survival.

It wasn't until the 19th century that the image of woman was sufficiently tarnished to be portrayed with a frequency that boggles. By the early 20th, Salome was a ready-made vamp that art, literature, and film gobbled up with gusto. Judith, her noble sacrifice eliciting barely a yawn from the over-indulged audiences, fading to barely a blip on the comparative religious studies.

The Cult of Salome

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by Giampietrino c. 1510-30
The cult of Salome gained full speed during the Italian Renaissance. As artists searched for subjects other than the traditional, Salome offered herself up without a struggle. Instead of highlighting John's tragedy, artists turned to the doe-eyed instrument of his peculiar demise for psychological exploration. True to their time, the answer they came up with was sex. What did Salome want? Sex. Not, of course, as the bible states: "For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not." The idea of revenge is tossed aside as soon as the artist imagines the dagger like flash in her eye. The leap is not hard to make. A pretty girl, clutching a silver charger with a wild man's severed head upon it. Frequently smiling, always curious, Salome's gaze is that of the insatiable virgin, who plots to rob man of his vitality through sex and sin. She is the unavoidable precipice that you would gladly step off of, but would vilify the next morning for luring you there.

Salome, Daughter of Herodias

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Lucas Cranach
"And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he swore unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist." MARK 6:22-25

Salome is not mentioned by name in the bible, other than as "the Daughter of Herodias." The lurid, even by biblical standards, tale of a teenage girl dancing for her uncle/stepfather and demanding the head of a prophet in recompense for slander against her mother, has sparked the art of sublimation for centuries. It is Josephus who gives us her name, Salome:

"Herodias was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great by Mariamme the daughter of Simon the high priest. They had a daughter Salome, after birth Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the way of our fathers, married Herod the Tetrarch, her husband's brother by the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee; to do this she parted from a living husband." — Antiquities 18.5.3 136 Josephus, 60 C.E.

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