Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Frans Francken II

Frans Francken II

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, c.1630, Oil on canvas, 57.47 x 34.88 cm, Serpukhov Art and Historical Museum, Russia, Anatoly Sapronenkov / Serpukhov Art and Historical Museum, Russia / Getty Images

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A Wealth of Possibilities

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Diana Lipton

There’s a paradox at the heart of kingship. A king requires power—often manifested in the ancient world in a great army to intimidate and defeat his enemies, and wives reflecting military and trade alliances with neighbouring countries.

He also needs great wealth to finance all this, and the magnificent buildings—palaces and temples—that are his visible presence in the world.

Yet the acquisition of power and wealth may paradoxically cause the oppression of the people it was intended to protect. Deuteronomy 17:14–20 both warns against and provides a control mechanism for such oppression: subservience to Torah law.

1 Kings 4–11 is the fulfilment of Deuteronomy’s warning.

Frans Francken II’s painting of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon’s court draws heavily on the Bible (1 Kings 10:1–13). As is common in depictions of this episode, the Queen of Sheba’s foreignness is not on display—her pale skin and fair hair are far from Ethiopian, and her attire is European. The same goes for her female attendants. Yet gender itself may be a signifier of foreignness in this painting, and in the Bible; as possible agents of seduction (whether political, religious, or moral), all women are potentially ‘foreign’.

We, the viewers, are being invited to take a position on the paradox of kingship. The figure dressed in a red cloak and ermine fur at the left of the composition—the chamberlain perhaps—has fixed us with his gaze. He’s pointing at the Queen of Sheba and the pile of gold and silver that are her tribute to the king. But other than two or three of Solomon’s courtiers, and the maidservant who’s holding the queen’s gown, no-one in the painting looks directly at the king and queen. Most of the spectators are engaged in animated debate with each other, modelling, perhaps, another way that we might respond.

As its viewers, we seem invited both to see, and to see through this scene. Do we see the power and wealth that are the foundation of Solomon’s glorious kingdom, or do we see the ‘foreign’ woman and the cache of silver and gold that herald a very bad end (cf. Deuteronomy 17:17)?