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Biblical Mysteries in Renaissance Italy
The legend of Salome and the beheading of Saint John the Baptist is one of the most horrific and fascinating stories from the Bible. It has inspired art, music and literature for centuries; from famous paintings and sculptures to the play of Oscar Wilde and ground-breaking opera of Richard Strauss. In this painting made after Milanese artist Andrea Solario (1460–1524), we see one of the most emotionally charged events of the story interpreted with all the mastery of the Italian Renaissance.
Born in Milan, he received his earliest training from his older brother Cristoforo Solari and together they worked at the great Milan Cathedral, itself an iconic masterpiece, and the monastery complex Certosa di Pavia. In 1507 Solario travelled to France and worked for the Cardinal of Amboise and possibly also visited Flanders. Works of Solario can be seen in museums in Venice, Milan, New York and Paris, where “Virgin of the Green Cushion” in the Louvre belong to his most celebrated works. The original to this painting is also found in the Louvre, signed and dated 1507.
Solario became one of the most distinguished followers of the style of Leonardo da Vinci, who’s manner is clearly recognizable in his works. To this tradition Solario also added influences from contemporary Dutch art and his very own signature style of beautiful, serene compositions with soft a soft light. Venetian painter Antonello da Messina was another inspiration. Both in his impressive portraits and intricate biblical scenes Solario captures the essence of the late Quattrocento and the important artistic development of the period.
Despite all the violence Saint John, like a true saint and martyr, preserves a serene and angelic expression even in his death.
Solario did several paintings based on the theme of Salome and Saint John the Baptist, another example is “Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The story was very popular among artists during this time. With its intense combination of martyrdom, betrayal, intrigues and chocking turns it offered a great variety of psychological and dramaturgic depth, that could be translated into painting. In the Metropolitan version we see Salome holding the plate on which the head of Saint John is to be laid upon; held up and dripping with blood. In this painting however, the story is boiled down to only the head that lies in monumental loneliness on a silver charger.
Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist ca. 1507–9, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Here the scene is crowded with both Salome and her fanciful dress; the hand holding up the head and several other details.
The charger uses the contrast between the silver-like grey and the warm golden edges to create depth and perspective; the shine and reflection of the metal is also an important element of the composition. The lifeless, blood dripping head against the cold metal underlines the severity of the story.
The emotional texture of the painting is striking. With the reduced composition the painting appears unusually gruesome, uncanny and beautiful at the same time. A complete absence of strong colours, a mystic darkness where the gloom of brutality and violence is counteracted with the resting and calm expression of Saint John – all an alchemy of contrasting and balancing energies and spiritual power.
In total, this painting is an extraordinary example of how even in a tightened composition and limited colour scheme Solario was able to convey a massive variety of expressions, subtle yet moving. It also reminds us that the fundamental importance of religion in Renaissance art, where the biblical stories were accounts of the essence of life itself and eye-openers to new artistic exploration.
The original version in the collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris, dated 1507.
Brown, David Allen, Andrea Solario, Electa Mondadori, Milan (1987). (in Italian) Brown, David Allen, et al., The Legacy of Leonardo: Painters in Lombardy, 1490-1530, Skira, Milan (1999)
Kleinschmidt, Beda Julius (1912). "Solari". In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company
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