The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon by Jacopo Tintoretto

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

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The Stage Is Set

Commentary by

Jacopo Tintoretto allows the hand gestures in his painting to tell the unspoken story of this encounter between the two great monarchs. Centre stage stands the richly-dressed figure of the Queen of Sheba. She inclines her head and places her right hand across her breast in a gesture of respect. Her left hand is held over her private parts in a gesture of modesty, directly alluding to the pose of antique Venus Pudica statues.

The Queen is majestic and dignified, yet respectful and perhaps slightly wary. The dark red carpet, cascading down the steps, draws our eye towards Solomon. He dominates the space between them, seated as he is above the Queen on a canopied throne between two elaborate gilded bronze pillars that allude to the pillars of the Temple named and described in 1 Kings 7:15–22.

Solomon leans forward, his open hand of welcome seeming to contradict the gesture of the bearded courtier on his right. The Queen inclines her head as she meets Solomon’s gaze across the chequered expanse of marble floor. She has come to test him with hard questions, but first she must acknowledge him as a great king.

They are not alone in their encounter. Solomon is flanked by an array of courtiers and advisers, and the Queen is surrounded by her ‘very great retinue’ (1 Kings 10:2; 2 Chronicles 9:1) of women in rich silks and velvets. Scattered in the foreground are the Queen’s gifts—golden vessels full of spices and perfumes from Saba, which call to mind the gifts of the Magi brought to honour the Christ-child.

Tintoretto seems to be showing us the preliminary greeting between Solomon and the Queen, the courtly, theatrical formalities played out in the presence of others. The court itself looks almost like a stage-set: indeed, we know that in his early career Tintoretto worked with theatre companies in Venice. We cannot imagine, however, that the Queen would tell King Solomon ‘all that was on her mind’ (1 Kings 10:2; 2 Chronicles 9:1) in this very public setting. Soon, we might find ourselves hoping, they will retire to a more private place, perhaps to a room in the apricot-coloured building on the left, where the Queen will be free to test the King with her questions—and where the real meeting of minds will take place.

 

References

Krischel, Roland et al. 2018. Tintoret. Naissance d'un genie (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux)