Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The word capital is known to us as both a monetary term and as the location of a seat of government. Unless a person is familiar with architecture, the head of a column may not come to mind. Stone columns were at first replacements for tree trunks but as architectural forms developed, psychological as well as physical factors came into play. At the bottom of a column a supporting base gives it the appearance of resting on the floor, not growing out of it. The “capital,” an embellishment at the top of a column, gives it a sense of completeness. Capitals of Egyptian columns were often in the form of lotus blossoms. Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian are names given to capitals used by the Greeks; these are familiar to us today because we continue to see them in classical revival architecture. In Romanesque church architecture, capitals of basket weave and intertwining vines were often carved but also they depicted biblical events. In Herod and Salome we see a detail from a capital that was once in the cloister of Saint Etienne, Toulouse, France. [The cloister was destroyed completely and this relief is now in a museum in Toulouse.]
In the familiar biblical story, Herod was attracted to his brother’s wife, Herodias. She decided to divorce her husband and marry Herod. John the Baptist was quite vocal in stating this marriage was unlawful; this angered Herodias so she asked Herod to imprison him. When Herodias’ daughter danced at Herod’s birthday banquet, Herod was pleased immensely and promised her anything she would ask. Her mother, who despised John for criticizing her marriage, told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod felt he could not go back on his word and granted the wish.
This relief of Herod and Salome is on a capital that was placed on double columns next to a wall. On the front (not shown) is a scene of a table set with food and people are gathered there to celebrate Herod’s birthday. Around the corner on the left side (pictured here) we see Herod seated with his step-daughter standing next to him; her feet are crossed at the ankles in a dance position. Herod’s left hand is placed gently under her chin in a tender moment as he looks at her in admiration. In this relief, she is child-like and unlike the “Salome” depicted usually as a seductive symbol of wickedness. This event is given in narrative form and is completed on the opposite side. On the right side of the capital, (around the corner from the banquet scene), John the Baptist is leaning over being beheaded.
In the Gospel of St. Mark the name of Herodias’ daughter’s is not given. Historian Flavius Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, supplied us with the name “Salome.” The “Dance of the Seven Veils,” said to have been performed by her, also is not mentioned. This dance is likely the result of transferring and embellishing the story of Assyrian and Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar’s visit to the underworld. On her way she shed a piece of clothing as she passed through each of seven gates. Because of its emotional content, the story of Herod and Salome often is told with vivid imagination and has been exploited in all of the arts.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian