Salome: Image and Text Interpretation (Exercise #6)

For this exercise, please choose one visual representation (image, video) of Salome or John the Baptist, either from the PowerPoint in class or one that you find on your own, reproduce it here via the Upload/Insert media link in WordPress, and write a brief paragraph about it.  How does or doesn’t this specific image/video relate to Wilde’s Salome, and why?  What sort of light does your choice of image/video shed on Wilde’s play, as you understand it, by comparison or contrast?

Feel free to comment on other students’ postings, too (but keep it brief).  As always, don’t forget to add your initials to everything you post.  Enjoy!

Due: Thursday, 11/15, by the end of the day (let me know if you need more time).

Hint:  Instead of (or in addition to) Exercise #6, you may also do Exercise #7 (same deadline).


(start inserting your contributions here)

For this short contribution, I chose a painting by a ‘not very well-known’ Austrian orientalist artist, Rudolph Ernst (1854-1932). The painting is named “Salomé and the Tigers.” This very nice canvas was painted in the end of the nineteenth century. Ernst lived part of his life in Vienna and Paris and he belonged to the Academy of Fine Arts of Vienna. He studied with Anselm Feuerbach, the leading classicist painter of the German 19th-century school. He also travelled in Spain and Morocco where a certain sense of exoticism made a great impression on him. Indeed, most of his paintings draw on the aesthetic of the mysterious Orient and its trite clichés (e.g. hookah smokers, harems, imams after prayer, etc.)

In this fabulous painting, one can see Salomé going down the marble stairs. She radiates majestically and designate with her hand one of the two tigers at the foot of the stairs in a nonchalant manner. Interestingly enough, in this painting, Salomé is represented with her cloths on. There is no trace of any veil whatsoever nor there is a trace of Jokanaan’s head. The three living subjects of this canvas foreshadow an interesting geometric triangulation. Along with the magnificent horizontal yielded by the two amphorae representing elephants on both sides of the stairs, the symbolic geometry inscribes itself harmoniously in this Oriental scenery. In this painting, the artist chose to accentuate the ‘wild,’ dangerous, and potentially ‘fatal’ features of Salomé’s personality. On this score, the colors are preponderantly yellowish and dark, as if to reinforce the tigers’ stripes and the ‘croqueuse d’hommes’ (man-eater) side of Salomé. In short, I would say that Salomé is represented in this painting, so to speak, as a nineteenth-century ‘cougar.’

Tigers aren’t mentioned that much in Wilde’s Salomé. However, a quite interesting instance can be found when Salomé is rhapsodizing about Jokanaan’s mouth, which she wants to kiss: “Tes cheveux sont horribles. Ils sont couverts de boue et de poussière. On dirait une couronne d’épines qu’on a placée sur ton front. On dirait un nœud de serpents noirs qui se tortillent autour de ton cou. Je n’aime pas tes cheveux… C’est de ta bouche que je suis amoureuse, Iokanaan.  […] Elle est plus rouge que les pieds des colombes qui demeurent dans les temples et sont nourries par les prêtres. Elle est plus rouge que les pieds de celui qui revient d’une forêt où il a tué un lion et vu des tigres dorés.  […] Il n’y a rien au monde d’aussi rouge que ta bouche… laisse-moi baiser ta bouche.” -R.C.

I have added the famous early 17th century Caravaggio painting entitled “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist,” currently held at the National Gallery in London, England. The art historian Michael Fried, in his recent book The Moment of Caravaggio, the published version of his  A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, sees this work (and other Caravaggio paintings) as trying to unite within one pictorial accomplishment both immersion and specularity (the former being loosely synonymous with “absorption,” a pet concept of Fried’s, the latter loosely synonymous with “detachment”). As viewers, we wonder whether Salome (here rather “tamely” depicted, compared to the extravagances of her later, more expressionistic incarnations) is looking away, beyond the frame of the painting, because she has JUST looked at the disembodied head and, swiftly thereafter, recoiled, or because she has YET to look at the head, and is avoiding doing so, knowing what the full taking-in of the deed might entail. In noticing all this (“this” being the ambiguity of Salome’s gaze, somewhere between avoidance and acceptance), of course, we, TOO, “look away” or “avoid looking” in much the same way. Her looking away, the status of her looking away, is bound up in her agency with regard to the deed that has been committed; our looking away, the status of our looking away, is bound up in our agency as beholders, and in our determining what the painting is ABOUT or what, exactly, is being shown us. I think that the painterly immediacy and temporal unity of Caravaggio’s work stands at a suggestive contrast with the relatively more temporally extended theatrical Salome of Oscar Wilde, where, especially in written, non-performed form (if a play can be a play apart from its performance), aural rather than specular elements have the upper hand. Nonetheless, inspired by Caravaggio, we may ask ourselves from whose perspective the action in Oscar Wilde’s play takes place and, moreover, how much that perspective actively shapes our perception of Salome and her actions…how and where, in other words, the play is asking us to look, and to what extent it allows us, like Caravaggio’s painting, to look away, with or without Salome herself. DJM

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This representation of Salomé is by the Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol, and was taken in the 1920s. I chose it for its risqué quality, but also because of the quality of the representation as a piece of art (art in and of itself) , and finally for the way it sheds light on Drtikol’s own interpretation of Salomé’s story (art with a clear angle.) The most apparent and striking element of this representation is of course the orgasmic posture and emotions that the young woman, placed at the center and which we can easily understand to be Salomé, is conveying. The head of John the Baptist lies between her legs, and, although it is looking up, it is clearly the source of her pleasure. Upon closer inspection, however, there is much more going on in this representation than a mere sexual transgression. The subtle game of lights, which could go unnoticed if one chose to focus on the main “action” of the representation, is also noteworthy. Indeed, Salomé is trapped between darkness and light, the representation being vertically cut down the middle of the picture, which also coincides with the middle of Salomé’s head – we could argue that this perhaps portrays the typical dichotomy between reason and passion—where passion is clearly triumphing. John the Baptist’s head, however, is placed in the area of light—the white portion of the image, and one could almost say that this light is emanating from the chopped head. The picture is however somewhat stiff, despite the apparent “relachement” or releasing of emotions that seems to be happening. Indeed, her back is in a straight line, as if she were fighting back the surge of emotions running through her body, and her head alone is at an angle. Her ribs stick out the side of her stomach, showing that she is trying to retain her breath, rather than release it. Her breast point straight out, perpendicular to her back, in a missile-like representation, revealing the danger of the seductress and the figure of the woman, despite her apparent vulnerability.
What also caught my attention in this representation was its ambiguity of form. I was not sure whether it was a painting, a pencil sketch, or even a photograph. It seems that the woman is part of a picture, but that the head and the portion to the left is a drawing (pencil or charcoal.)
Finally, I like the fact that the photographer chose to “complete the story” from Wilde’s Salomé. Whereas Wilde ends the story very abruptly after Salomé gets the head of John the Baptist on a platter and kisses it, she is killed. There is some suggestion as to the fact that she has been “devirginized” of sorts, but it is all fairly ambiguous and rushed. She is dead before one can even say “John the Baptist.” In this representation, that which is suggested, that which is tacit in the story, is brought into the open. Her pleasure upon receiving the head is displayed in the most vivid and explicit way, and I am tempted to say “ha! Knew it.” – CAN

Gonna mess with me? Bring it.  That’s what this Salome seems to be saying, and she says it with blasé arrogance.  Wilde’s Salome is also a force to be reckoned with, but she is more dramatic and hysterical than this visual rendition.  In the play, she begins as seemingly innocent, and then evolves into a manipulative temptress, and ends in histrionic victory.  In contrast, the image makes it appear as though Salome performed such perverted acts frequently, and was ready to take down the next person who didn’t do as she wished; it doesn’t look like this is her first time.  However, considering Wilde’s Salome through the lens of this image allows us to think of what Salome embodies – whether seduction, lust, power, corruption, or anything else – in a more permanent sense.  This Salome looks like she will live on, and that perverted power is nothing new to her. – YG

Here, we see an image from a 2008 production of the Strauss opera of Salome put on in London’s Covent Garden theater. Immediately, the image is very striking because of the contrast between the splattered red and virginal white, two colours whose juxtaposition often signifies the ‘deflowering’ or penetrating of a supposedly virtuous female character- one could contrast this image with the ‘handkerchief spotted with strawberries’ that is seen in Othello and is used to signify Desdemona’s adultery. As well as this, this image seeks to convey Salome’s activity and her position of power in the events of the play, as she clasps the head of Jokanaan to her breast, regarding the world with what seems to be a crazed devotion. While Salome may not be a character we wish to emulate morally, this image and the play itself are exemplars of strong, active, intelligent female characters, yet they come from a time where prejudiced social constructions of gender had not yet been broken. Herodias’ page states in the play that ‘you look too much upon Salome’, and it is appropriate that this renders Salome as the object of desire, as it always made abundantly clear that she controls the desires of the men around her – note Herod’s pitiful begging for Salome to ‘dance for me, I beseech you.’ This linguistic dominance is mirrored in the image by the way Salome stands alone at the front of the stage, in a spotlight directly focused on her. Traditional masculine power has become subverted, and all that we are left with is the image of Salome, standing frightened, yet proud of the way she has taken the head of Jokanaan. Blood has been spilled, but Salome is just as much predator as she is prey, leaving the audience with only her and the grim eyes of the Prophet to stare at.- DF

This painting of Salome was done by a little-known British artist named Caroline Smith in 2010. It is a marked departure from the usual tone of Salome portrayals: instead of a somber oil painting with subdued tones, Smith uses bright, almost cartoon-ish colors. Her imagery is simplistic and geometric, rather than excruciatingly detailed, and it creates the effect of a street mural rather than a museum piece. The effect of this brightly colored, more simplistic style of painting that it creates a different, perhaps non-traditional tone around its central character. In particular, it does so by  highlighting certain elements of Salome over others. For instance, Smith keeps the body of Salome completely white: but this in turn allows the black veils and the flaming red hair to stand out as more symbolically important.  Bright red hair, for example, suggests a fiery nature, passion, even madness. Each of these things, however – even madness – suggests a level of individual freedom. Correspondingly, the black veil is obvious as it coils around her arms and between her legs. The curved lines and interweaving suggest a level of sensuality around Salome, another sign of feminine agency. What is significantly absent from the piece, however, is a sense of shame or somberness. Her unconcealed nakedness, the arms thrown above her head, and the flowing long hair suggest a kind of freedom that she revels in. You could even mistake her posture for one who is still dancing, even though the head lies on the floor beside her. The bright colors only add to this effect. This is a marked departure from Renaissance-era paintings especially where Salome is shown to be ashamed or fearful of her own act. On the flip-side, however, the moon (or sun) glares at her with a judging look, and the sky is full of watching eyes. The viewer gets the sense that negativity comes from these surrounding gazes – but not from the conscience of Salome herself. As this is a more modern painting (done by a female artist), perhaps Smith is gesturing on some level at Salome’s bold possession of agency – and the corresponding condemnation of that agency by others. – [A.A.]

The component of Wilde’s play “Salome” that I would like to see visually represented most would be the dance of the seven veils. As we discussed in class, Wilde merely writes, “SALOME dances the dance of the seven veils,” (600). The dance itself is really left up to the imagination of the reader or director of the play. I searched “Salome dance of the seven veils” in Google images to see what kind of visual representations were provided. The majority, like the image above, pictured a woman (almost always very scantily clad) with a large piece of cloth twirled around her body. The dance is obviously supposed to be very sensual. This poster for the Salome opera uses this seductive dance as the hook to draw audiences in. I think this would be a similar stage representation to what Wilde would have created. In his play, Wilde delves mainly into Salome’s experience and her motives. For Salome, her reason for wanting Jokanaan’s head is because he scorned her love and desires. Her passions seem to drive her actions. She channels this energy into her seductive dance because she knows that it will convince Herod to give her whatever she wants. She uses her sexuality, expressed in this dance, to get revenge. I would be interested to see what a Renaissance version of this play would be and what the dance of the seven veils would look like. If the paintings are any indication, I think the dance would be very different, more prude and less sensual, than later versions such as this one. How would Herod’s obedience be explained without an overt sexual component?  IPN

Onorio Marinari’s painting, called Salomé with the Head of the Baptist, was particularly striking to me. Unlike most of the nineteenth century depictions of Salomé, she is fully clothed, but at least for me, this does not seem to detract from the intensity and sensual mood of the portrait. I think my favorite part of this picture is the face of Salomé: beautiful, expressive, but also tender and innocent. She is clutching the face of John the Baptist tenderly, which is interesting seeing as she was the one who requested him to be killed. If one didn’t know the story of Salomé, perhaps he or she might consider Salomé to be a sympathetic character in the play after looking at this portrait.

Accompanied by the attached piece “Vision of Salomé” (Archibald Joyce), we can almost visualize the delicate and beautiful yet still very powerful Salomé slowly swaying to the music in the dance of the seven veils. Like Salomé herself, this piece may seem light and carefree (it is in fact a waltz) initially, but eventually we see that maintains a darker subtlety underneath the thin façade. It seems almost fitting to me that this song was featured in the 1997 movie Titanic, because it is a beautiful piece that is foreshadowing of a horrible event to come. -MG

This is a short video of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the Royal Opera House production of Salomé. It is interesting to note how this short clip deviates from the plot of Wilde’s play as well as from the way we might have imagined this dance. First, as the stage upon which to perform her dance, Salomé chooses none other than Jokanaan’s cistern (covered by cage-like bars). She performs a striptease dance around the opening of this cistern while throwing the removed garments directly into Jokanaan’s cell. This slight embellishment of the plot is quite powerful because now the “Dance of Seven Veils” is no longer for Herod’s eyes alone, but is also meant for Jokanaan, whose entrapment in the cistern forces him to witness Salomé’s dance. She twirls her garments above the cistern, provoking him as a trapped wild animal. The second interesting element here is that while the dance is undoubtedly erotic, it is so in a grotesque way, and not a youthful and common way. The directors of this operatic production clearly imagined a different kind of Salomé – one with jerky movement, a wild, ungraceful and neurotic sexuality. I find this use of artistic license convincing and faithful to the decadent character of the play.   (Voland)

Dance of the 7 Veils

I spent some time on YouTube looking at clips of different productions of the Salomé opera, because I was very curious to see what the Dance of the 7 Veils has been made to look like.  As we discussed in class, the dance is mentioned in a very short and almost comically unnoticeable sentence of stage directions- and yet we know from context that it is one of the most significant moments of the entire play.  There were many interesting versions of the dance- but I found it interesting that in this version, there were 6 other women in veils, making Salomé, quite literally, the 7th veil.  This sort of image is very different from other clips, in which Salomé dances on her own.  While aesthetically, the addition of the 6 ladies is very appealing- we get to see a beautiful synchronization of motion- I think the productions in which Salomé dances alone are more accurate.  Herod wishes to see Salomé dance, not Salomé and her six handmaids- I think it is important that she alone transfixes Herod by her physically aesthetic movements.  In any case, all of the clips were interesting to watch- I’d encourage others to look at the many different videos on YouTube to get a better idea of what this elusive dance might actually look like. -J.S.W.

This image of Salome, painted by Titian in 1515, predates Oscar Wilde’s play by almost four centuries. From Titan’s painting, the viewer gets a sense of Salome unrecognizable in Wilde’s drama. Wilde portrays Salome as a femme fatale, a seductress who uses the Dance of the Seven Veils to manipulate her stepfather into ordering the beheading of Jokanaan, whom she claims to love. In this painting by Titian, Salome is dressed fairly modestly, her pose and looks echoing those of pious women. Although she carries John the Baptist’s head on a platter (often left out of representations around Wilde’s time), she looks away, her gaze upon something to the viewer’s right. Another child-like figure appears to Salome’s right, gazing up at her. Neither look at the head of John the Baptist. Although Salome’s expression comes across as nearly mournful, we get none of the necrophiliac undertones evident in Wilde’s Salome. In Titian’s representation, Salome comes across as a chaste, Biblical figure rather than the femme fatale Wilde depicts. -KJO


I found this piece to be immediately striking—it is a sculpture of white marble, simply entitled Salomé.  Jan Van Oost, a Flemish artist, created it in 1990, and it was displayed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, until it was stolen earlier this year. This piece is particularly notable because it completely shatters our conception of Salomé: pre 19th century, she is conventionally depicted as a pious ingénue, devout and demure, deceived by her incestuous mother; post 19th century, she is the femme fatale, naked and nubile, Huysman’s “goddess of immortal Hysteria.” Despite the wildly different interpretations, nearly all artistic renderings of Salomé emphasize her physical form. Van Oost radicalizes Salome by removing her, and in this, he suggests that her body is not as important as her actions. This gives a new level of complexity to Salomé’s agency.

Nevertheless, Van Oost is faithful to the Wildean tradition: there is a sense of unrequited longing as Salomé attempts to access Jokanaan. It is interesting to note that Salomé reaches towards Jokanaan’s eyes, and not his lips. Jokanaan’s “pomegranate” mouth was the initial source of her desire, but in her final monologue, Salomé bemoans the fact that Jokanaan never “saw” her or “looked” at her. This seems to suggest that an emotional connection may have been more important than the physical one.  Van Oost recognizes this and captures it quite accurately.

Furthermore, Van Oost juxtaposes life and death by representing Salome through the outstretched hand and Joakanaan through the skull. Van Oost purposely skews the chronology: in the Wilde version, Salomé is killed nearly instantly after she is presented with Jokanaan’s still-dripping head on the charger; there could not be enough time for it to entirely decay. This  creates a stark and unsettling contrast between the flesh-covered fingers and the bare cranium. And though Salomé appears more robust than Jokanaan, her hand is severed, which suggests that this moment is captured after both are dead.

Ultimately, Van Oost provides a new, revolutionary perspective on Wilde’s Salomé. I’d be really interested to hear other responses/reactions in the comment section.


This interpretation of Salomé’s dance comes from a 1923 silent film based on Wilde’s Salomé. The Art Nouveau feel of the scene, and most of the film, from what I’ve watched, has a similarly surreal atmosphere to the play. Everything feels slow and many movements or sequences are repeated or echoed (such as the four dancers surrounding Salomé and the collection of dancers wearing large hats), similar to the pace of the play and Wilde’s frequent use of repeated and echoed phrases. This clip shows, however, a distinctly more emotional element to Salomé’s behavior than is demonstrated in the play. As Salomé begins the dance in this clip, she has a look of absolute terror. As her dance progresses, she begins to look more wild, culminating in her spinning around and throwing herself on the floor, all while covered in a veil. From the play, it would seem that Salomé is rather fearless, and so her look of fright feels out of place to me. The wildness of her dancing is also in tension with the slow, steady manner she demonstrates in the play after having danced, when she demands from Herod the head of Jokanaan. At the same time, however, the emotions of Herod and Herodias seem quite appropriate. Herod looks absolutely desperate, rocking in his chair and staring with unhidden glee and fascination at Salomé’s dancing. Herodias will barely look at Salomé, her tense body language and angled position demonstrating a clear disapproval for the dancing. Above all else, this clip feels like a dream, just as almost all of Wilde’s play does. Though the emotions displayed in the clip during the dance are much more exaggerated than in Wilde’s work, this does not take away from the overall ambiance, which is quite similar to the original play. -M.P.


In this image we see Salomé leaning towards the severed head of John the Baptist.  The photo first appeared in Le Monde, the Parisian newspaper in 1987 claiming it was Oscar Wilde himself, in drag, dressed as his own character. For years the photo was thought to be of him, and many considered it to be an homage to Sarah Bernhardt, or a bold statement of sexual liberty. Disappointingly, the picture is not of Oscar Wilde, but of a Hungarian opera singer—Alice Guszalewicz. It was Merlin Holland, who expressed the first doubts regarding the photo, and said “My skepticism was founded on the fact that the nose was too beaked and aquiline and the lips weren’t full enough. Whatever anyone has said about Oscar and his naughtiness, he wasn’t the sort of person who would dress in women’s clothing and have himself photographed. It’s too vulgar.” You must admit though, that the resemblance between the two is uncanny. However disappointing this may be, the fact that people would assume this actually was Oscar Wilde, is indicative not only of his sexual tendencies, his decadence, but also his boldness. It’s almost as if it needs to be him to come to life, the opera singer just seems androgynous in the most asexual of ways and bland.


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