1 Kings 11
Commentary by Nicholas Tromans
A team of artists given the task of making over 500 illustrations in a single manuscript is likely to have only limited time and space to devote to any single image. The results risk becoming bland. But the demands of pictorial economy might occasionally focus the minds of illuminators to identify the real ethical kernel of a narrative.
Arguably both outcomes can be seen in this page in a Book of Hours created in Paris around 1500. The page (fol. 92v) occurs within the cycle of the Penitential Psalms. Here we can see text from Psalm 51:
Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (vv.6–7)
This section of the book is illustrated with episodes from the lives of David and Solomon.
In the topmost illumination on this page we can see Solomon being pampered by some of his ‘many foreign women’ (1 Kings 11:1) or ‘concubines’ as the French text in blue has it. The illustration cuts straight to the root cause of Solomon’s failure: soon these same women will lead him into the unforgivable sin of idolatry.
In the illumination at the bottom of the page are two men showing how, according to the French gloss, the prophets gave signs that the King’s behaviour was not at all pleasing to God. The man on the left is probably the prophet Ahijah, addressing Jeroboam on the right, who would parcel out the formerly united kingdom of Israel with Solomon’s son Rehoboam:
Then Ahijah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, ‘Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon…”’ (1 Kings 11:30–31)
The condensed format of this illumination helps us grasp Solomon’s downfall, but its small scale means that it struggles to do justice to Ahijah’s sartorial allegory—a scene rarely treated in visual art.
Hubris and Nemesis
Commentary by Nicholas Tromans
A later, simplified revision of Lucas van Leyden’s print of the Idolatry of Solomon was taken as the model for the main panel of this triptych, probably painted in Antwerp in the 1520s. No one has managed to identify the maker of the triptych, but we do know that its first owner was a wealthy peat farmer who may have commissioned it, as a lesson in fidelity, to celebrate a marriage.
In both versions of Lucas’s print, the idol to which Solomon pays such absurd attention is male, but here it has become female, raised up on a multi-tiered structure which is in turn dependent upon the efforts of a team of putti. The bronze figure has been exquisitely painted by our anonymous master, and, in fairness to Solomon, it is a fascinating object.
The left wing of the triptych represents the homage paid to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. Spectacularly clad, she kneels to offer her host a beautiful vessel of gold, marking an important stage in Solomon’s worsening addiction to precious metals and stones. The visit was often imagined as a typological precedent of the Adoration of the Magi, as for example in the windows of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, created by Flemish artists at a similar period to this work.
That link to Christ perhaps encouraged the painter of the triptych to invent, in the right wing, an iconographic novelty: the appearance to Solomon of the second person of the Trinity. The old King had already been visited twice by God in dreams and warned to remain loyal (1 Kings 3:5–15; 9:1–9). This third, waking appearance brought judgement:
Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you. (1 Kings 11:11)
God the Father remains hidden, and so it is Christ, Solomon’s antitype, who completes this three-part narrative of the great man’s hubris and nemesis.
Broos, Ben. Intimacies and Intrigues: History Painting in the Mauritshuis (The Hague: Mauritshuis, 1993), pp. 356–63
Commentary by Nicholas Tromans
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.
Bergson, Henri. 1900. Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique (Paris)
Unknown French artists [Paris] :
Solomon Enthroned, Surrounded by Three Women, from Book of Hours (MS H.5), c.1500 , Tempera on vellum
Master of the Salomon triptych :
Triptych with the Life Story of Solomon, c.1521 , Oil on panel
Lucas van Leyden :
Solomon's Idolatry, 1514 , Engraving
Mixing with the Neighbours
Commentary by Nicholas Tromans
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.