The cult of Salome gained full speed during the Italian Renaissance. As artists searched for subjects other than the traditional, Salome offered herself up without a struggle. Instead of highlighting John’s tragedy, artists turned to the doe-eyed instrument of his peculiar demise for psychological exploration. True to their time, the answer they came up with was sex. What did Salome want? Sex. Not, of course, as the bible states: “For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not.” The idea of revenge is tossed aside as soon as the artist imagines the dagger like flash in her eye. The leap is not hard to make. A pretty girl, clutching a silver charger with a wild man’s severed head upon it. Frequently smiling, always curious, Salome’s gaze is that of the insatiable virgin, who plots to rob man of his vitality through sex and sin. She is the unavoidable precipice that you would gladly step off of, but would vilify the next morning for luring you there.
“She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” — Salome, by Oscar Wilde
This vision of Salome remains more or less intact to the present day. Exemplified in Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” of 1894, which was so iconic and archetypal that almost any version of Salome that has been done in the past hundred years is either a direct descendent — or a bastard child. Wilde explored the beauty of heightened biblical language to exquisite effect. The rhythm of the play reverberates long after the words were spoke. Oscar doesn¹t invent anything new; he merely draws on centuries of church repressed sex, expressed thru the pantomime of ritual assassinations. Especially poignant to the Victorians, as they were the most repressed of all.
During the latter renaissance (1500-1700) Judith and Salome (as well as a multitude of Lucretias) gave noble women of the period something to masquerade as. The quasi-religious portrait probably grew out of trying to justify secular portraiture. But very quickly became a sort of charades for posterity. Some of it quite cheeky. It is fascinating that women of the time would have wanted to be characterized by their descendants as the vixen clutching a severed head. Salome was a little less popular in this regard, as her motives came from the wrong side of the tracks. Judith, however, exemplified the ultimate sacrifice, that of her virtue (both hymenally & homicidally) for the sake of her people’s integrity.