Solomon's Idolatry by Lucas van Leyden

Lucas van Leyden

Solomon's Idolatry, 1514, Engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Felix M. Warburg and his family, 1941, inv. 41.1.25, www.metmuseum.org

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Exchanging Looks

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Solomon’s fall from wisdom and grace into self-indulgent befuddlement offers one of the most powerful cautionary tales in the Bible. The King of Israel’s extreme uxoriousness made him an ideal figure for a special sub-genre of admonitory stories known as the Power of Women (or Weibermacht) series.

Featuring such hapless males as Adam, Samson, Aristotle, and Virgil, these collections of texts and images cast women as the irrational principle, leading their distinguished men into confusion. This tragi-comic engraving by Lucas van Leyden, dated 1514, was part of one such series. The warning of Sirach, ‘many have been misled by a woman’s beauty’ (Ecclesiasticus 9:8), appears on a simpler, revised version of the subject published by Lucas a few years later.

That the great Solomon should have been led astray by the magnificent woman who dominates the composition may not be surprising. Her superb figure, posture, and headgear mark her as someone not easy to refuse. The idol is however a different question: he is, as the story demands, preposterous. A rather dainty, faun-like creature, he sits on a sphere (like some kind of ancient Space Hopper) which suggests instability. Half-heartedly, he proffers an ox skull as if tentatively requesting further sacrifices. The citizens processing beyond prefer not to notice, apart from the man who peeps incredulously at the King’s shame from behind the column on the left.

Theorists of laughter tell us that nothing is funnier than someone who is lost in their own thoughts, for it may be the fundamental role of humour to call back such lost individuals to the group (Bergson 1900). His sceptre deferentially laid aside, Solomon kneels in devotion just as a devotee might kneel at a church altar of Lucas van Leyden’s own day. He seems so intent on what he is doing that his wife’s encouragement is scarcely necessary.

But is the old man truly far gone in idolatry, or just acting the part? There may well be hope for him if we onlookers can catch the eye of the peeper and join with him in a hearty dose of mockery.

 

References

Bergson, Henri. 1900. Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique (Paris)

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