Solomon Making a Sacrifice to the Idols by Sébastien Bourdon

Sébastien Bourdon

Solomon Making a Sacrifice to the Idols, c.1646–47, Oil on canvas, 156 x 145 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, INV. 2800, Stéphane Maréchalle © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

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In Flagrante

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Diana Lipton

The implied reader of Deuteronomy 17:2–7 is not the perpetrator of the crime in question—the worship of other gods—but the person who hears of or sees the prohibited crime. Turning a deaf ear or a blind eye is out of the question. Whoever has reason to suspect is legally obliged to investigate, and witnesses are bound to cast the first stone.

Viewed through this lens, Sébastien Bourdon’s Solomon Worshipping Idols depicts a nightmare. He makes you, the viewer, into an unwilling, terrified witness of a capital crime involving the king.

You come upon a clearing in the Jerusalem hills. A column, a massive urn, and two statues—one male and dark and one white and female—are permanent fixtures, but they can’t be dismissed as the decaying remains of an earlier civilization. An expanse of fabric has been draped around the tree and the urn, creating the sense of an enclosure, and there’s a red carpet trimmed with gold on the steps. The statues are festooned with garlands of fresh flowers. There’s music—you see a small flute and cymbals, and snatches of song emerge from the open mouths of a couple of the women. Pungent smoke drifts up from a golden incense altar, and a libation offering with a silver chalice and platter is in process. Can these be the very vessels designated for use in the holy Temple (1 Kings 7:48–51)?

King Solomon is gazing up at the statues, as directed by a woman in white at centre stage. His hands are on his chest. She’s literally turning his heart towards other gods (Deuteronomy 17:17). There’s no way out of this: you’re a witness to royal idol worship. Your hand will throw the first stone of a public stoning that will end with the king’s death (v.7). You and you alone will be responsible for regicide.

But wait. You and you alone. You’re the only witness, and ‘a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness’ (v.6). Without making a sound, you turn on your heels and tiptoe away.