Spotlight: Salome

John the Baptist, the New Testament prophet we discussed in our Spotlight post a few weeks ago, famously met his end at the hands Herod Antipas and his enraged wife, Herodias, whom the Baptist had publicly decried for breaking the Law of Moses (she was his brother’s wife before she left him to marry Antipas).  Taking advantage of the

Andrea Solario (ca. 1465–1524)
“Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

opportunity to capitalize on Herod’s lust over her daughter, Salome, she managed to use the young woman as a means of executing the imprisoned and beloved John.  After dancing before her stepfather at a feast, Salome is promised anything she desires in the world, and at the bidding of her mother, she tells him that she wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter, thus forever sealing her fate as seductress and murderess.  Artists have been fascinated by this obliging daughter and unfortunate pawn for centuries.

How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: Salome (whose name is not noted in the Mark 6 account of the story, but given by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus) is typically shown is the midst of the Dance of the Seven Veils, the traditional name of the dance that earned her John’s head on a platter.  She is more often depicted with John’s head.  But be cautious!  When you see an image of woman with a decapitated head, be sure to check for other signs that it is Salome; images of her are sometimes confused with those of the Jewish heroine Judith, who beheaded Holofernes, an enemy of the Israelites.

Salome in New York City: One of the most striking portrayals of Salome can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in the same gallery as the stunning Joan of Arc we’ve mentioned here before!).  This grand work by Henri Regnault, which catches the eye with its vibrant palette and near-photographic rendering of the figure, is a must-see.

Henri Regnault (1843–1871)
“Salomé”, 1870
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

You can also find Salome in the Brooklyn Museum, in a much differently rendered portrayal, though it expresses the woman’s role throughout Western art just the same.

Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987)
“Salome Dancing”, ca. 1925-30
The Brooklyn Museum

Modern Day Murderess: Salome has been a subject of fascination for centuries.  Painted by Caravaggio, Titian, and Dore, among many others, she has also been a muse for writers and musicians.  She was the titular character of a play by Oscar Wilde, which premiered in 1896.  His imagining of the young femme fatale, as a woman infatuated with the imprisoned Baptist who does not return her affection, captivated other artists and inspired everything from a one-act opera by Richard Strauss to a gritty alternative rock song by 90s singer-songwriter Liz Phair.

Literature – Salome can be found as a minor but significant character in the Brooks Hansen novel John the Baptizer, which we mentioned in our post about John the Baptist a few weeks ago.  In Hansen’s rich narrative description of the scene in which Salome performs a dance so sensational that her uncle/stepfather promises her half of his kingdom if she should desire it, the young Herodian princess is little more than a bored, spoiled girl seeking thrills wherever she can find them.  In Beatrice Gormley’s young adult novel, Salome, the story is one of maternal betrayal, guilt, and regret.  Told from Salome’s point of view, the story acts as a great introduction for readers seeking literature that further characterizes biblical figures, especially traditional villains.  Gormley softens the harsh light cast on an obliging girl doing her mother’s bidding and puts the reader in the scene in which the former is blamed for centuries to come while the latter is faintly remembered as a footnote in the crime.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Beyond Broadway at 61st: Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua

Every week, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will feature a New York City site with interesting biblical art that we think is worth a look. Whether uptown, downtown, across town, or in the boroughs, we’ll explore art in context, from well-known landmarks to buildings tucked away on quiet blocks. Visit New York’s hidden gems with us, see some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.

Right on Houston Street, on the dividing line between a few Downtown New York City neighborhoods, stands the Shrine Church of St. Anthony of Padua, a gathering place for the community.  Founded in 1866 as a ministry that catered to Italian immigrants, the church is to this day run by Franciscan Friars, an order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209 devoted to ministering to the poor.  The church operates as a parish, as a shrine to St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), popular patron saint of Padua to whom believers pray when they’ve lost something. The site is also the setting for St. Anthony’s Market (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 AM to 8 PM) where one can fine various wares including clothes, jewelry, and flowers.

The church’s richly decorated  interior attests to its historic ministry to an Italian Catholic congregation.   The large, brightly colored stained glass windows are devoted solely to St. Anthony and his personal patron, St. Francis of Assisi,.  The main altar holds painted statues of St. Anthony bowing before the Virgin Mary.  In the choir loft, nearly hidden from view, is a monumental, life-size sculpture of the Trinity – God, depicted as an older man, talking with Jesus, with the dove of the Holy Spirit hovering above them.

This historic parish, a fixture in the neighborhood for more than 100 years , the calls out to the neighborhood with an eye-catching message of “PEACE ON EARTH” written on a large sign on the side of the church that faces the ever-busy Houston Street. 

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St. Anthony of Padua is located at 154 Sullivan Street.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Spotlight: Delilah

Samson and Delilah
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (artwork not currently on display)

One of the most infamous femme fatales of all time, Delilah, from the Book of Judges, brought down the Israelite hero Samson with a single act so potent that it has been recounted in art for centuries.  In the quintessential story of how feminine wiles can undo even the strongest man, Delilah is portrayed as the embodiment of deceit, treachery, and lust.

How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: In Judges 16, Samson, an Israelite, falls in love with a woman named Delilah, who was approached by Samson’s enemies, the Philistines, and bribed into getting him to reveal the secret of his strength.  After misleading her several times, Samson finally admits that his uncut hair allows him to be invincible.  In art, Delilah is often seen ushering in the Philistines to allow them access to a sleeping Samson.  Sometimes, she prepares to cut Samson’s hair, so look for a pair of scissors or a knife.

Delilah is also sometimes depicted in scenes in which a weakened and betrayed Samson is blinded.

The Temptress Takes Manhattan: Delilah can found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a beautiful painting by Guercino.  She makes other appearances throughout the museum.

Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591–1666)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 2009, MOBIA’s exhibition Reel Religion: a Century of the Bible and Film displayed a move poster for the 1948 film, Samson and Delilah.  The dramatic image juxtaposes the pale, beautiful Delilah with an invincable Samson, showing off his strength with the jaw of an ass, his weapon.

“Samson and Delilah”, 1949

Delilah Today: Literature – India Edghill’s novel Delilah tells the well-known story from Delilah’s point of view.  Edghill imagines Delilah as a priestess in the ancient Near East who falls in love with the mysterious hero Samson.  Their lives and those of the people around them are placed in a very interesting historical context and colored by the heightened drama of the story found in the Bible.  Edgill does a great job of making a one-dimensional character believably multi-dimensional.

Music – On her 2006 album Begin to Hope, Regina Spektor released a song called “Samson” that makes strong allusions to the tale of Delilah and Samson.  Much like a visual work of art, Spektor brings out clues as to who the characters are, but reshapes them to tell the story of her choosing:

You are my sweetest downfall
I loved you first, I loved you first
Beneath the sheets of paper lies my truth
I have to go, I have to go
Your hair was long when we first met…

Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
Ate a slice of Wonder Bread and went right back to bed
Oh, we couldn’t bring the columns down
Yeah we couldn’t destroy a single one
And history books forgot about us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once

(Listen to the song here.)

- T.C. for MOBIA

Beyond Broadway at 61st: Trinity Wall Street

Every Wednesday, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will feature a New York City site with interesting biblical art that we think is worth a look. Whether uptown, downtown, across town, or in the boroughs, we’ll explore art in context, from well-known landmarks to buildings tucked away on quiet blocks. Visit New York’s hidden gems with us, see some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.

Wall Street, known for towering skyscrapers and fast-paced street traffic, also offers a surprising haven from the bustle of Downtown.  Trinity Wall Street, a historic Episcopal church, is a comforting sight with its façade of brown stone, its soaring, 250-foot spire, serene tympanum, and adjacent cemetery (the exterior is currently under construction, blocking the overall view for the time being).  The centuries-old headstones, brightened by carefully cultivated rows of flowers, are worth the walk around the property.  Inside, the highlight is the All Saints’ Chapel, set apart from the main sanctuary, undisturbed and beautiful like a true relic from the Gothic past.  You may not find hidden treasure under the church like Nicolas Cage did in the 2004 movie National Treasure, but it is considered a treasure to the New York City community.

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Spotlight: Potiphar’s Wife

Throughout September, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will spotlight some of the Bible’s most notorious women.

Potiphar’s Wife (Potiphars Weib)
Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881–1919)
1914, Drypoint; first state, 15 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches (39.5 x 29.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (artwork not on display)

Exemplars of wickedness, deceit, and lust, these biblical women are a part of a rich visual tradition.  This week, we are starting with Genesis, spotlighting Potiphar’s wife.

How to Know Her and Where to Find Her: Potiphar was a high-ranking Egyptian official to whom Joseph, the favorite son of patriarch Jacob, was sold as a slave.  Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and when he denies her, she accuses him of attempted rape and as a result, he is thrown in jail.  Potiphar’s wife is depicted in these failed seduction scenes, sometimes nude, sometimes as an extravagant woman of means beckoning the handsome slave to come hither.  Sometimes she is shown in accusation scenes, which highlight the injustice done unto Joseph at the hands of this deceitful woman.

Her New York Hiding Places: Potiphar’s wife’s popularity throughout the years has resulted in numerous depictions.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections feature a watch and dishware that portray the scene, evidence of the popularity of this scandalous and salacious scene.

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
Watchmaker: Unknown
ca. 1645–50, French, Gold, enameled (painted), Diam. 2-1/2 in. (6.4 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Temptress Today: Theatre – Potiphar’s wife is a character in the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  In a filmed version of the show that was released on video in 1999, this classic adultress and affront to Joseph’s virtue is portrayed by Joan Collins.  Underscoring Joseph’s vulnerability is a wide-eyed Donny Osmond in the titular role.  The catchy and clever lyrics of the song about the two even point out the exact chapter in which the sordid event takes place (hint: “It’s all there in Chapter 39 of Genesis.”).

Joan Collins and Donny Osmond in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (1999)

Literature – Angela Hunt, who wrote the novel Magdalene that we recommended a few weeks ago, also wrote a trilogy about Joseph and his troubled family.  In the first book, Dreamers, Hunt makes Potiphar’s wife a main character, giving her a name and a plausible, near-understandable motive for her actions other than blind lust.  As envisioned by Hunt, Potiphar’s wife is a complex character who is not a complete villain, but a fallible human who acts upon relatable emotions and eventually redeems herself.  The whole trilogy is devoted to the fleshing out of these figures, and Hunt’s full-bodied characterization of Potiphar’s wife is a fine example of that.

- T.C. for MOBIA