In the Scriptures, the dance of Herodias’s daughter is a comparatively minor detail in a much larger story about desire and hatred. The main characters are John the Baptist on the side of righteousness, and Herodias, whom he had outed as adulteress and lawbreaker, on the side of evil. The nameless dancing girl, who would later gain fame as Salome, and to a lesser degree perhaps Herod as well, occupy the ambiguous empty space in between these two extremes.
The figure of the dancing girl in the Bible story provided a blank sheet onto which artists at different times, and in different places, projected their ideas about women. Over the centuries, the dancer therefore assumed many guises, connected both to fears and to desires surrounding male notions of womanhood. Acrobatic dancer, seductive nymph, self-assertive muse, violent revenger, and dangerous femme fatale are only a few among them. The artworks chosen for this exhibition show how Salome was imagined in Europe at three specific points in time, and explore three of her many bodies and faces.
The fourteenth-century illuminator of the Holkham Bible pairs Salome’s dance with Herodias’s instruction to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and emphasizes an interpretation of the young girl as a child without much agency of her own. Here, she is the obedient and passive tool of Herodias’s desire for vengeance. Salome’s contorted malleable limbs as she dances manifest her equally malleable soul, which leads in turn to the ambiguity of her actions.
Following the Renaissance tradition of depicting Salome as the epitome of idealized femininity and the essence of the artistic muse, Hans Horions’s seventeenth-century Salome appears, by contrast, as a self-assertive individual who performs her dance with confidence. Ignoring the male gazes piercing her body from all sides, she directly addresses the audience outside the picture frame, thereby inviting them to become complicit in her doubtful actions. She has already begun to manifest the alluring powers of the femme fatale into whom she would be transformed in the nineteenth century. Horions’s Salome is shown as her mother Herodias’s equal, taking an active share in the sin of the prophet’s murder.
Constructivist artist and stage designer Aleksandra Ekster could look back on a decades-long tradition of Salome images that drew on her sensuality and dark power as femme fatale. In post-revolutionary Russia, she developed an innovative stage setting and costume designs which presents Oscar Wilde’s Salome, a fin-de-siècle icon, as dissolved in colour and movement. In a sense, the fractured figure in Ekster’s sketch provides the perfect expression for a character as multifaceted and elusive as Herodias’s dancing daughter.
All three Salomes—medieval, early modern, and modern—tell us different yet connected stories, not only about the ambiguity of what different societies attach to the concept of ‘woman’, but also to the concept of ‘dance’. On the one hand dance is perceived as an expression of celebration and joy, but it is also associated with excess and danger. As such, the dancing daughter is the perfect projection screen for our fears and desires, and the perfect reminder of the complexity of what it means to be human.
Neginsky, Rosina. 2013. Salome: The Image of a Woman Who Never Was; Salome: Nymph, Seducer, Destroyer (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing)
6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Heroʹdi-as danced before the company, and pleased Herod, 7so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Heroʹdi-as’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out, and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25And she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.