Wednesday, October 22, 2014

MWA XXIX: Cranach's Salome

Northern Renaissance art is one of those areas in art history where, one day, I will give myself a crash course (recommendations on survey texts greatly appreciated!). Whenever I see works by masters such as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, Lucas Cranach the Elder (ca.1472-1553), and others, I am astounded at their talent, their handling of oil paint, particularly on wood panels, and the often haunting beauty evident in their figures. But I always feel as if I'm missing something, as if there is more going on, beyond what you see, and I struggle to know what it is. I believe part of the challenge in understanding most Renaissance art from the German states has to do with the rise of Protestantism under Martin Luther and how that change altered the development of painting itself. Exquisite Madonnas and Nativities gradually gave way to peasant scenes and still life subjects, more acceptable forms of art that focused less on religious ritual and more on word and action. Cranach was one of those artists who successfully bridged the transition between the Catholic and the Protestant in art.

I've chosen for this Monthly Work of Art Cranach's painting of Salome, ca. 1530, oil on panel (Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest; image: Web Gallery of Art), in part because it's an eye-catching painting, but also because the rather disturbing image seemed appropriate for the upcoming Halloween season. The subject is from the New Testament (Mark 6:21-29 and Matthew 14:6-11). It is the story of Salome, the daughter of Herodias and step-daughter of Herod, who performed the so-called Dance of the Seven Veils and so entranced her step-father that he promised to give her anything she wanted. Her mother, angry at the accusations weighed against her by John the Baptist, made her ask for the prophet's head on a silver platter. Herod was forced to comply, and the cousin of Jesus was beheaded. The legend of Salome of course developed over time. In fact, she is not named in the Bible, but only given her name by Josephus, the first-century historian, decades later. Salome herself evolved over time in cultural history. Early references make her a naive child, but over time she became a femme fatale, a creature whose beauty is so powerful she destroys men. You can see that effect taking place in this painting. Cranach depicts with gore the decapitated head oozing blood while blank, dead eyes stare at the viewer. Salome seems almost devilish, grinning in delight at what she has accomplished. She has long golden braids and wears Renaissance finery (that feathered hat is incredible!), and she clutches with ease the heavy silver platter with the decapitated head as if it weighed nothing. For a Renaissance audience, this type of Salome was a daughter of Eve, a temptress and destroyer of man's innocence from the time of the Garden of Eden. But not every artist over time depicted Salome in this way. If you just do a Google Image search, you can quickly see the varying ways artists have depicted her holding the head of John the Baptist. In some, she looks away in horror (humility?), in others she seems to be in a daze (entranced?). But there are many others where Salome is depicted as in Cranach's painting, an active participant, one who kills, using her dancing and beauty to entrance mankind to her will, and to his demise.

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