All three of the artworks in this exhibition convey the essential elements of the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but the individual artists have both suggested and elaborated upon those details that they consider most important.
Qes Adamu Tesfaw, drawing on centuries of Ethiopian tradition, has emphasized the importance of the Queen. She is slightly taller than Solomon, and appears rather larger than him too, thanks to her impressive blue cloak. Her outstretched hand dominates the centre point of the composition: it is she who takes the initiative in the moment of greeting. According to the fourteenth-century sacred history the Kebra Nagast, the great King Menelik—he who would one day transport the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum—was the result of the union between Solomon and Makeda. Being descended from Solomon, and thus from King David, he is regarded by Ethiopian Christians as a direct relation of Christ himself. In this encounter, therefore, Ethiopian Christians find proof that they are the lawful successors to the Israelites as the chosen people of God.
For Lorenzo Ghiberti, the meeting of Solomon and the Queen seems to have had a different importance. In his relief panel, the two royal figures are united in a way that seems not only celebratory and jubilant, but almost sacramental. If this was indeed a direct allusion to the Council of Florence (1439–45), the image of this royal pair has a significance for Christians far surpassing a single historical moment. Church Fathers and later theologians have long agreed that Solomon is an Old Testament type, or prefiguration, of Jesus Christ. While Solomon raised the Temple of God in Jerusalem, Christ raised the House of God in the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Temple of Solomon is thus an earthly foretaste of Paradise, an idea that Ghiberti has evoked with great skill. In the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 60:6; Psalm 72:10), the Queen of Sheba was held up as a sign of the acknowledgement and worship of God by pagans and gentiles. The Church Fathers drew on this idea to affirm that the meeting of Solomon and the Queen represented the union of Jesus and his Church, whose members come from all corners of the world.
For Jacopo Tintoretto, who seems to have been fascinated by this story (we have at least seven surviving versions painted by him), the emphasis is more on the courtly greeting between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, and her respectful homage to him. The king is seated high above her on an elaborate and imposing throne. It is he who decides whether she should kneel or advance towards him. Tintoretto is therefore not alluding to their blessed union, but to the might of Solomon. This has its clear roots in the New Testament, where Jesus cites the Queen of Sheba as a prophetic witness: she ‘came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here’ (Matthew 12:42). This passage developed into the long-accepted idea that the visit of the Queen of Sheba was a prefiguration of the journey of the three wise men or Magi, who came to adore the Christ-child. Tintoretto paints the golden vessels, the jars of perfume and tusks of ivory that the Queen brought with her, and we even catch a glimpse of a camel, framed by the arch in the background, details which call to mind images of the Adoration of the Magi.
This brief story, which occupies just twelve biblical verses, has given rise to centuries of interpretations and embellishments—scholarly, literary, and artistic. It has also inspired archaeological research. During the past fifty years, archaeologists working in eastern Yemen have found evidence of a sophisticated civilization in Ma’rib, formerly known as Saba, whose considerable wealth was founded upon the trade in frankincense and myrrh. King Solomon, for his part, actively encouraged friendly relations and trading partnerships with neighbouring kingdoms. It is possible that the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was nothing more than an elaborate trade mission—but if so, it is one that has left a very strong echo indeed.
Pritchard, James B. (ed.). 1974. Solomon and Sheba (Phaidon: London)
10 Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. 2She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. 3And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king which he could not explain to her. 4And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 5the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.
6 And she said to the king, “The report was true which I heard in my own land of your affairs and of your wisdom, 7but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and behold, the half was not told me; your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report which I heard. 8Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! 9Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel for ever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” 10Then she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again came such an abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
11 Moreover the fleet of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought from Ophir a very great amount of almug wood and precious stones. 12And the king made of the almug wood supports for the house of the Lord, and for the king’s house, lyres also and harps for the singers; no such almug wood has come or been seen, to this day.
13 And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land, with her servants.
9 Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions, having a very great retinue and camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. When she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. 2And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from Solomon which he could not explain to her. 3And when the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 4the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, and their clothing, his cupbearers, and their clothing, and his burnt offerings which he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.
5 And she said to the king, “The report was true which I heard in my own land of your affairs and of your wisdom, 6but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it; and behold, half the greatness of your wisdom was not told me; you surpass the report which I heard. 7Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! 8Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the Lord your God! Because your God loved Israel and would establish them for ever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” 9Then she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices, and precious stones: there were no spices such as those which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
10 Moreover the servants of Huram and the servants of Solomon, who brought gold from Ophir, brought algum wood and precious stones. 11And the king made of the algum wood steps for the house of the Lord and for the king’s house, lyres also and harps for the singers; there never was seen the like of them before in the land of Judah.
12 And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what she had brought to the king. So she turned and went back to her own land, with her servants.