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Unknown French artists [Paris]

Solomon Enthroned, Surrounded by Three Women, from Book of Hours (MS H.5), c.1500, Tempera on vellum, 172 x 117 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Gift of the Heineman Foundation, 1977, MS H.5, fol. 92v, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Master of the Salomon triptych

Triptych with the Life Story of Solomon, c.1521, Oil on panel, 107.5 x 77 cm, The Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. 433, Courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague

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

Mixing with the Neighbours

Comparative Commentary by

Samuel saw it all coming. The Israelites wanted a king, but a monarch would only lord it over the people, impose swingeing taxes, force them to labour on his great projects, and seek himself to take the place of God as their proper master (1 Samuel 8). The reason given by the people for wanting a monarchy was ‘that we also may be like all the nations’, an idea that would prove disastrous for Solomon, the fourth King of Israel.

1 Kings 11 tells how Solomon, having built the Temple and made Jerusalem into a magnificent city, and having established vast wealth and international trade, became so enamoured of his 1,000 foreign wives and concubines that he began to worship their native gods. God’s punishment of Solomon was that his son Rehoboam be disinherited of almost all the kingdom.

The three images, or sets of images, shown here all date from the early sixteenth century, the eve of the Reformation. It is often suggested that the theme of the idolatry of Solomon particularly resonated with Calvinistic iconoclasts. But it continued to be popular too in Catholic contexts. For example, it is central to the first major commission undertaken by Pietro da Cortona, one of the great masters of the Italian baroque (Palazzo Mattei, Rome).

It seems that artists had little antiquarian interest in precisely what kinds of idols Solomon may have set up, and indeed 1 Kings 11 names only a very few of the foreign deities for whom Solomon built shrines. But it then observes: ‘And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods’ (v.8), which suggests an uncountable number of idols of every shape and nature. Commentaries on those foreign gods who are given names have focused upon two to which it has also been possible to fill in some character: the male Moloch (Molech) and female Ashtoreth (Astarte). Ashtoreth was easily elided into Venus, sometimes accompanied by Cupid as in a painting by Willem de Poorter in the Rijksmuseum. Moloch, meanwhile, was associated with human sacrifice and fire, as in his treatment in England by John Milton and William Blake (see Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, which Blake illustrated). Hence the brazier carried by the idol in the print by Lucas van Leyden which was the model for the central panel of the History of Solomon triptych.

In Early Modern European prints and paintings, the idols are often imagined as distinctly underwhelming alternatives to the sublimely hidden God of the Israelites. They may be blandly Classical, as when they appear as Venus, or as a deified imperial mortal, as in a 1622 painting by Frans Francken the Younger. Or else they are grotesque, as in Lucas’s engraving of 1514 shown in this exhibition. Here the little god sits on a globe which recalls one of the iconographic attributes of Fortune, and which more generally suggests inherent instability. Equally, the beautifully-crafted bronze figure to which Solomon makes obeisance in the Mauritsthuis triptych could surely be toppled with little more than a sharp nudge. Artists therefore mainly emphasized the cynical nature of the whole process. The Israelites had wanted a king to be just like everyone else, and now Solomon, for a quiet life, went through the motions of erecting shrines for anyone who wanted one. He appears to have built throughout Israel a veritable ecumenical museum of idols, a nationwide syncretic sculpture garden.

When the biblical books are read in canonical order, Solomon’s waywardness seems to be predicted in Deuteronomy 7 (among other passages), where the neighbours of Israel’s promised land are listed. The faithful must have nothing to do with these other nations:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you ... You shall not make marriages with them … For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. (vv.1–4)

The passage seems to suggest that miscegenation (interracial relationship) lies behind the rebellious idolatry of Solomon—that mixing of the self that comes when you allow yourself to become settled and thereby acquire neighbours, who may be curse as well as blessing.

Next exhibition: 1 Kings 17:1–7