“Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist”, Caravaggio, c.1609, Palacio Real, Madrid
The ambiguity surrounding the involvement of Salome in the death of John the Baptist has been revisited in the arts again and again. Caravaggio painted Salome with the saint’s in the last year of his life. He was on the run from the Roman courts and the death penalty. He had painted John the Baptist many times during his career. There are at least 11 paintings that show John as a young boy or an adolescent in the wilderness. In most of these works St John the Baptist has a red cloth or garment and in these works it seems to be a marker of holiness. But here it is is draped over the shoulders of Salome who, certainly, was no saint. Perhaps, it is simply that having brought about the death of the saint, she takes his cloak as well. But I think it is more complex. Behind her is a much older woman who, we may presume, is her mother, Herodias. Both have played their part in the death of saint. As Salome holds his head on the platter, she does not look at it, but stares out at the viewer. Her expression is hard to read. Certainly, there is no sense of horror or recoil. Is this a look of remorse or triumph? The heavily wrinkled skin of the older woman contrasts with that of Salome. A seeming youthful innocence is strangely juxtaposed with knowing old age. About a third of the canvas is left in darkness, suggesting that much is left unsaid. Caravaggio manages to preserve the ambiguity which has always surrounded Salome, leaving the viewers to decide for themselves. We celebrate the Memorial of the Passion of St John the Baptist next Monday.
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.