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The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon by Jacopo Tintoretto
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti
Scene of the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, surrounded by their respective attendants by Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Jacopo Tintoretto

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, c.1545-46, Oil on canvas, Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University, South Carolina, Courtesy of the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University

Lorenzo Ghiberti

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from Gates of Paradise, 1425–52, Gilded bronze, 79 x 79 cm, The Baptistery, Florence, Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Scene of the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, surrounded by their respective attendants, c.2003, Oil on canvas, 156 x 298 cm, The British Museum, London, 2012,2023.1, © Qes Adamu Tesfaw; Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Echoes through Time

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

Pritchard, James B. (ed.). 1974. Solomon and Sheba (Phaidon: London)