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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: tenth anniversary issue

Embler, Weller
[Rage against iniquity],   pp. [79]-93 ff. PDF (18.5 MB)

Page 81

intensely alive at the moment of
consummate violence.2
Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1870) by
Gustave Moreau enjoyed a wide reputation
in its time, in part as a result of the
praise given the painting by Joris Karl
Huysmans in his novel, A Rebours (1884).
In a prose only slightly less hieratic and
gorgeous than the painting itself.
Huysmans celebrates Moreau's Salome as a
masterpiece of visual art.3 Gustave
Moreau was haunted by the image of
Salome, said Arthur Symons, and he painted
her "a hundred times, always a rigid
flower of evil, always in the midst of
sumptuous glooms or barbaric
Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salome ("A
Tragedy in One Act") in French in 1891,
and although not one of his major
works, it had power and meaning enough to
inspire drawings by Aubrey Beardsley and
an opera by Richard Strauss. Wilde's
Salome was banned in England by the Lord
Chamberlain in 1892, but was published in
French in 1893, and in English, in the
translation by Lord Alfred Douglas, in
1894, and produced in Paris in 1896.
Whatever else may be said of Salome, it is
a revealing literary document of the
attitude of mind of artists and writers of
the fin-de siecle.
Beardsley first met Wilde in 1891.
Although they grew to dislike one another,
at the start of their acquaintance their
admiration was mutual. In 1893 Beardsley
was commissioned to do the illustrations
for the 1894 English translation of
Salome. Wilde was vexed by some of the
drawings, either because they were too
flippant for the text or too erotic for
Wilde's taste, or both. Though often
bizarre, the illustrations are distinctly
pictorial. The Victorians had not before
known salacity rendered with such
highly-wrought suggestiveness. Except for
the opera by Richard Strauss, it is
Beardsley's Salome who has engaged the
erotic imagination of the twentieth century
more than any other re-creation of the
The opera Salome by Richard Strauss is
based on the play by Wilde and was first
produced at the Royal Opera, Dresden, in
December, 1905. It too had a stormy
career at the hands of the censors.
After its first performance at the
Metropolitan Opera in New York, one critic
announced that he was "stung into
righteous fury by the moral stench
with which Salome fills the nostrils of
Humanity." Decidely a work of musical
genius, Strauss's Salome has survived the
early criticisms and found a permanent
place in the opera repertory.
Briefly, the legend of St. John the Baptist
and Salome is as follows. Herod
Antipas was the son of Herod the Great,
king of Judaea at the time when Jesus was
born. By the will of his father, who
died in 4 B.C., Herod Antipas became
Tetrarch of Galilee and was supported in
this position by the Romans, especially
Vitellius, the Roman governor.
Herod Antipas repudiated his wife and
married Herodias, daughter of his half
brother Aristobulus and wife of his half
brother Herod Philip, whom she divorced to
marry Herod Antipas. Salome was the
daughter of Herodias and Herod Philip.
At the time of Herodias' marriage to Herod
Antipas, John the Baptist, a leader
among the people, was preaching in the
land of Judaea and calling upon the Jews to
repent, for the advent of the Messiah had
already taken place, he said, and the
kingdom of heaven was at hand.
The Jews were outraged at the incestuous
relationship of Herod and Herodias; and
John the Baptist condemned Herod for
having taken his brother's wife. John
was even more critical of Herodias, and in
his public preaching accused her of
outstanding wickedness and threatened her
with the wrath of God. Herodias hated
John, and at her insistence Herod
imprisoned him in an empty well. But
according to the Gospels, Herod knew that
John was a holy man, and he feared
him and wished him no harm.
Herodias held her daughter apart from
court life, preparing to use Salome on
some celebrated occasion to seduce
Herod into effecting the destruction of John
the Baptist. The occasion presented itself
when Herod gave a sumptuous feast in
honor of his birthday. As entertainment
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