Peter Paul Rubens
10th Tiberius Auction
Siegen 1577 – 1640 Antwerp, Workshop, Circle of
Herodias and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist
Oil on oak panel
102 x 70 cm, with frame 122 x 90 cm
This extraordinary painting is a version of “Herodias and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” by Peter Paul Rubens. It was probably painted after a copperplate engraving that was made soon after the creation of the much-praised painting. This is mirror-inverted in typical manner, being the result of the printing process. The subject of the painting is biblical: John the Baptist is imprisoned because he is accused of adultery with Herodias, whose daughter Salome then demands John’s head on a dish (Mk 6:17-29). In fact, it is Herodias here – and not Salome – who smugly presents John‘s head to the viewer.
Herodias is dressed in a luxurious golden robe and a red cloak, and she wears a pearl-studded headdress as well as a necklace with precious stones over her décolleté. To her left, Salome is shown giving her mother an undefinable sideways glance. Possibly she does not want to look at the plate? The bearded guard with the sword approaches from the right, having just knocked John’s head off his body. With his right hand clenched in a fist, he has grabbed the head and seems to be about to place it on the tray that Herodias presents to the viewer with a slight smile. The saint’s troubled face is marked by a prominent nose, half-closed eyes, and a mouth hidden by his full beard.
The many painted repetitions of this theme attest to its popularity, although several of them are thought to have been lost. Well-known versions can be found today, for example, in the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, in the Old Masters Picture Gallery of the Dresden State Art Collections, and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (inv. no. 2384). Compositionally, they all seem to go back to a common model, namely the copper engraving. However, they clearly vary in the execution of small details; for example, here in the direct and rather unusual rapt gaze of Herodias (cf. KHM) and the restrained expression of Salome, who otherwise appears either frightened or mischievous. The guard’s posture and gaze are very close to the original engraving. In this way, the painting joins the group of various repetitions of the popular pictorial subject.
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