Salome's dance; the death of St John the Baptist, from the 'Holkham Bible Picture Book' by Unknown English artist

Unknown English artist

Salome's dance; the death of St John the Baptist, from the 'Holkham Bible Picture Book', c.1327–35, Illumination on parchment, 285 x 210 mm, The British Library, London, Additional 47682 fol. 21v, © The British Library Board (Add MS 47682, fol. 21v)

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out
Reset image Reset image

Balanced Body, Unbalanced Soul?

Commentary by

This is one of over 230 illuminations depicting episodes from the Old and New Testaments. The illuminations are assembled in a manuscript known as the Holkham Bible Picture Book, and were probably made for a wealthy patron in fourteenth-century England.

The illumination shows Herod’s birthday celebrations at a richly laden banquet table, with the king and his wife Herodias feasting among a group of courtiers in fashionable fourteenth-century dress.

To the left of the table, Herodias’s young daughter performs her dance for Herod. As in the Scriptures, she remains nameless in the short text accompanying the image. She is depicted balancing on her hands, arching her back, and throwing her feet backwards into mid-air as if to perform a somersault. Such acrobatic entertainment would have been familiar to a medieval audience from the performances of jugglers, acrobats, and dancers at real-life festivities.

Dance had an ambivalent status in medieval Europe. While the Christian church conceived of the harmonious movements of angels and righteous souls in Paradise as an expression of mystical joy in the presence of God, dance on earth—especially when demonstrating exaggeration of movement—was often interpreted as a sign of a socially and morally reprehensible character, as a sign of an unstable soul, and even as a sign of madness. Medieval artists therefore often depicted Herodias’s daughter performing the elaborate contortions of a juggler to convey the ambiguity of her dance and character—both thought to have contributed to John the Baptist’s death.

In the Holkham Bible, the girl’s ambiguous role is further enhanced by juxtaposing the moment of her dance with the moment she receives Herodias’s instruction to ask for John the Baptist’s head as her reward. Using the narrative device of simultaneity, the painter shows the girl kneeling in front of the banquet table, where she obediently receives her mother’s orders, and is thus transformed into a murderous weapon.

References

Baert, Barbara. 2013–14. ‘“The Daughter Came in and Danced’: Revisiting Salome’s Dance in Medieval and Early Modern Iconology’, Jaarboek Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen s.n.: 152–92

Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane and Susan Emanuel. 2017. ‘Salome’s Dance’, Clio: Women, Gender, History, 46: 186–97

Read next commentary