But an opportunity came (to kill John the Baptist) when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptizer.”
Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.’ Mark 6:21-28
Artists as Carravaggio, Oscar Wilde and Strauss turned Salomé’s image around and made her into a seductress. I quite like to think everyone agrees with me that they did this for the better. J.K. Huysmans says it better than anyone why:
No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles,–a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like Helen of Troy of the old Classic fables, all who come near her, all who see her, all who touch her.
I haven’t read all that much written about Salomé so I cannot say ‘this or this is my favourite version’ but I truly love Oscar Wilde’s! What stuck with me of his play is Salomé’s adoration for Jokanaan’s looks:
It is his eyes above all that are terrible. They are like the black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry. They are like black caverns where dragons dwell. They are like the black caverns of Egypt in which the dragons make their lairs. They are like black lakes troubled by fantastic moons…
Thy mouth is like a branch of coral that fishers have found in the twilight of the sea, the coral that they keep for the kings…! It is like the vermilion that the Moabites find in the mines of Moab, the vermilion that the kings take from them. It is like the bow of the King of the Persians, that is painted with vermilion, and is tipped with coral. There is nothing so red as thy mouth… Let me kiss thy mouth.
Perhaps I am merely fascinated by these lines because I’m obsessed with finding a boy that is so beautiful that I can worship him simply because of his appearance (and yes, nothing more). I want to be like a man and fall in love with looks only and write divine elegies when he has broken my heart! But what gripped me most are the last words of Salomé, after she has been given Jokanaan’s head on a silver platter.
Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I said it; did I not say it? I said it. Ah! I will kiss it now . . . . But wherefore dost thou not look at me, Iokanaan? Thine eyes that were so terrible, so full of rage and scorn, are shut now. Wherefore are they shut? Open thine eyes! Lift up thine eyelids, Iokanaan! Wherefore dost thou not look at me? Art thou afraid of me, Iokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me? . . . And thy tongue, that was like a red snake darting poison, it moves no more, it speaks no words, Iokanaan, that scarlet viper that spat its venom upon me. It is strange, is it not? How is it that the red viper stirs no longer?. . .Thou wouldst have none of me, Iokanaan. Thou rejectedst me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst bear thyself toward me as to a harlot, as to a woman that is a wanton, to me, Salome, daughter of Herodias, Princess of Judæa! Well, I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will. I can throw it to the dogs and to the birds of the air. That which the dogs leave, the birds of the air shall devour . . . . Ah, Iokanaan, Iokanaan, thou wert the man that I loved alone among men! All other men were hateful to me. But thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set upon feet of silver. It was a garden full of doves and lilies of silver. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music. Ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me, Iokanaan? With the cloak of thine hands, and with the cloak of thy blasphemies thou didst hide thy face. Thou didst put upon thine eyes the covering of him who would see his God. Well, thou hast seen thy God, Iokanaan, but me, me, thou didst never see. If thou hadst seen me thou hadst loved me. I saw thee, and I loved thee. Oh, how I loved thee! I love thee yet, Iokanaan. I love only thee . . . . I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor apples can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Iokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion. I was a princess, and thou didst scorn me. I was a virgin, and thou didst take my virginity from me. I was chaste, and thou didst fill my veins with fire . . . . Ah! ah! wherefore didst thou not look at me? If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of Love is greater than the mystery of Death.
And her last words after the kiss:
Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan. I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood…? But perchance it was the taste of love… They say that love hath a bitter taste… but what of that? What of that? I have kissed thy mouth, Jokanaan.
Well, I cannot quote Wilde’s Salomé without including one of Beardsley’s illustrations!
The climax is Beardsley’s most well-know illustration for Salomé but I think I prefer The Dancer’s Reward!
I adore Salomé’s eyes in this one. I’m rather upset about Jokanaan’s because Oscar clearly described the sense of peace in his eyes but his look scares me in Beardsley’s version!
Furthermore I am in absolute awe of this version of Gustave Moreau:
And these two, somewhat more obscure paintings, which might even be my absolute favourites:
Salomé by Georges-Olivier Desvallières
Salomé by Véra Willoughby
Quite poor reproductions because I could not find them on the web and not only is my digital camera of utterly abominable quality but my hands are perpetually shaking!
And last but not least I found some versions on YouTube of Salomé by Richard Strauss recently. I still haven’t decided which version I like best.
By the Swarowsky Wiwnwe Philharmoniker in 1960
by l’Orchestre de l’Opéra National Paris in 2003
(Click the videos to see the rest of the opera’s)