Solomon’s judgement of the two prostitutes who both claim to be the mother of one living baby was a popular subject for artists. Jusepe de Ribera’s painting departs from artistic tradition by depicting an intimate drama, not a major spectacle (cf. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s 1726–28 version of the scene in the Patriarchal Palace, Udine). Ribera’s small, dark, enclosed area, in which a few ‘props’—a pillar for a palace, a paw for a throne—stand for the whole, has the feel of a stage set.
True to the biblical account (1 Kings 3:16–28), Ribera makes it next to impossible for the viewer to know which of the women is the real mother.
The biblical narrator creates uncertainty by neither naming nor describing the two women, by the ambiguous use of personal pronouns (especially in Hebrew), and by inconsistency regarding the order of speakers. Readers cannot be sure that Solomon gave the living baby to the woman the narrator called the true mother.
Ribera has the two women dressed almost identically, their expressions and postures giving little away. Based on visual evidence, a case can be made for either.
The Bible locates this episode immediately after Solomon’s inaugural dream at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4–15); a sign that he’s qualified for the job of judge. All Israel, and all future readers, are witnesses to a demonstration of Solomon’s God-given capacity to adjudicate between right and wrong (v.9).
Ribera, however, portrays Solomon as an old man, hinting that the story’s significance lies elsewhere.
Read in the light of Deuteronomy 17:8–13, and in the company of Ribera’s painting, the episode can seem to say that, in baffling legal disputes such as this one, the judge’s decision, right or wrong, just or unjust, must stand. The formulation that occurs in both 1 Kings 3:28 and Deuteronomy 17:13—‘all Israel heard … and feared’—may hint that the king awarded the baby to the ‘wrong’ mother. Not the compassionate one, but the one who, like Solomon himself, compensated for the absence of birthright (Solomon was not David’s firstborn) and bluffed fearlessly to keep the whole baby (read ‘kingdom’).