1 Kings 11

Solomon’s Idolatry

Commentaries by Nicholas Tromans

Works of art by Lucas van Leyden, Master of the Salomon triptych and Unknown French artists [Paris]

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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

Nobody’s Perfect

Commentary by Nicholas Tromans

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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.

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

Hubris and Nemesis

Commentary by Nicholas Tromans

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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

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

Exchanging Looks

Commentary by Nicholas Tromans

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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

Comparative commentary by Nicholas Tromans

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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

1 Kings 11

Revised Standard Version

11 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women: the daughter of Pharaoh, and Moabite, Ammonite, Eʹdomite, Sidoʹnian, and Hittite women, 2from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love. 3He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. 4For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5For Solomon went after Ashʹtoreth the goddess of the Sidoʹnians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 7Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. 8And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.

9 And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, 10and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not keep what the Lord commanded. 11Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “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 and will give it to your servant. 12Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13However I will not tear away all the kingdom; but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen.”

14 And the Lord raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Eʹdomite; he was of the royal house in Edom. 15For when David was in Edom, and Joʹab the commander of the army went up to bury the slain, he slew every male in Edom 16(for Joʹab and all Israel remained there six months, until he had cut off every male in Edom); 17but Hadad fled to Egypt, together with certain Eʹdomites of his father’s servants, Hadad being yet a little child. 18They set out from Midʹian and came to Paran, and took men with them from Paran and came to Egypt, to Pharaoh king of Egypt, who gave him a house, and assigned him an allowance of food, and gave him land. 19And Hadad found great favor in the sight of Pharaoh, so that he gave him in marriage the sister of his own wife, the sister of Tahʹpenes the queen. 20And the sister of Tahʹpenes bore him Genuʹbath his son, whom Tahʹpenes weaned in Pharaoh’s house; and Genuʹbath was in Pharaoh’s house among the sons of Pharaoh. 21But when Hadad heard in Egypt that David slept with his fathers and that Joʹab the commander of the army was dead, Hadad said to Pharaoh, “Let me depart, that I may go to my own country.” 22But Pharaoh said to him, “What have you lacked with me that you are now seeking to go to your own country?” And he said to him, “Only let me go.”

23 God also raised up as an adversary to him, Rezon the son of Eliʹada, who had fled from his master Hadad-eʹzer king of Zobah. 24And he gathered men about him and became leader of a marauding band, after the slaughter by David; and they went to Damascus, and dwelt there, and made him king in Damascus. 25He was an adversary of Israel all the days of Solomon, doing mischief as Hadad did; and he abhorred Israel, and reigned over Syria.

26 Jeroboʹam the son of Nebat, an Eʹphraimite of Zerʹedah, a servant of Solomon, whose mother’s name was Zeruʹah, a widow, also lifted up his hand against the king. 27And this was the reason why he lifted up his hand against the king. Solomon built the Millo, and closed up the breach of the city of David his father. 28The man Jeroboʹam was very able, and when Solomon saw that the young man was industrious he gave him charge over all the forced labor of the house of Joseph. 29And at that time, when Jeroboʹam went out of Jerusalem, the prophet Ahiʹjah the Shiʹlonite found him on the road. Now Ahiʹjah had clad himself with a new garment; and the two of them were alone in the open country. 30Then Ahiʹjah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. 31And he said to Jeroboʹam, “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, and will give you ten tribes 32(but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), 33because he has forsaken me, and worshiped Ashʹtoreth the goddess of the Sidoʹnians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, as David his father did. 34Nevertheless I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand; but I will make him ruler all the days of his life, for the sake of David my servant whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes; 35but I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand, and will give it to you, ten tribes. 36Yet to his son I will give one tribe, that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name. 37And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel. 38And if you will hearken to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you. 39And I will for this afflict the descendants of David, but not for ever.’ ” 40Solomon sought therefore to kill Jeroboʹam; but Jeroboʹam arose, and fled into Egypt, to Shishak king of Egypt, and was in Egypt until the death of Solomon.

41 Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, and all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the book of the acts of Solomon? 42And the time that Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel was forty years. 43And Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David his father; and Rehoboʹam his son reigned in his stead.