The gospels don’t name her. But we know from other historical accounts that Herodias’ daughter was named Salome. And history has not been particularly kind to Salome. Is that fair?
Christian theologians have interpreted her as a lewd temptress (all that dancing): Conniving, cold, cruel, and feminine. Classic Western art used her as an excuse to eroticize the body of an often young girl dressed in silks, her face flushed with her exotic dancing. And Salome was frequently painted holding the platter with John the Baptist’s head on it—never Herod or Herodias—but young Salome, looking off into the distance—aloof or silly. More modern Western art has continued the trend: Salome the child has been transformed into the archetypal femme fatale. Not merely lascivious, but a sadist and a psychopath—sensually aroused by severed heads. And so Salome has shouldered the blame—as women and girls so often do.
Even though Herod imprisoned John, and even though Herod made a ridiculous promise to give Salome anything she asks for—as if he can assume it’s going to be a nice request, but then it’s not nice, but he has to do it anyway because of his manly honor— But it’s not his fault because he was deceived…by a woman. And even though it was Herodias’ grudge against John, and even though it was Herodias’ request that John lose his head, and even though Salome is a kid stuck in the middle of the great powers of her day—king father, queen mother, imperial guests, divine prophet, it is Salome (hoisting the platter in her skimpy dress, staring vacantly toward the horizon) who shoulders the blame for John’s beheading. Is that fair?
Can you imagine? You’re thirteen. You’ve just nailed your dance recital. Your number was a present for your stepdad, Herod, who also happens to be the king, who also happens to be your uncle—it’s weird! Anyway, he loves it. I mean he really loves it, and all the other men seem to love it too—it’s weird! Anyway, this might finally get your mom off your back because she’s been so stressed out about this stupid party. And then Herod says, “You can have whatever you want!” And you stop yourself just before you blurt out, “PONY!” because you know your mom’s been having a tough time. You decide to do something nice and ask her what you should get—as a gift to her now that you’ve given his Royal Highness Uncle Stepdad his gift. “My sweet girl,” Mom whispers. “Always thinking of others. Be a dear and ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Is that fair?
What would you have felt in that moment? What would you have thought as you walked in your leotard and tights from Herodias to Herod to execute mom’s request? I can imagine myself thinking something like the opening lines of our poem this morning: “There are days I think beauty has been exhausted.” Have you ever felt like that? Can you imagine feeling like it’s not just that the world around you that’s ugly, but that your participation in the world—your dance, your passion, your gift is suddenly revealed to be a part of the world’s brutality. And the ringing of the applause in your ears turns from universal praise for your art to the rally of a partisan and pitiless assault on some poor prophet in prison. And what will you do? What are you going to do?
Would you have defied your mother if you were Salome when you were maybe thirteen-years old? I don’t know. Defiance of one’s parents takes either the absolute certainty that they’re never going to stop loving you or the ability to leave them behind and to make it on your own without their support. And I don’t imagine that Salome had either of those luxuries. So, what would you have done?
I can imagine myself walking slowly and unsteadily back to the throne, unsure of myself, just torn to pieces. I’d be frantically running through my narrow options, desperately seeking for the margin of error that will let me slip free without destroying myself. But that’s not what Salome does.
I can imagine myself walking up to the throne with a lump in my throat, barely able to speak. I’d whisper to the crowd that Mother wants John the Baptist’s head. And in the commotion that follows, I’d slip out the side door. And no one would ever associate me with the death of some hairy old prophet down in the dungeons. No one would blame me. All they would remember was my dancing—my beautiful dancing. But that’s not what Salome does.
I can imagine myself defeated and empty—just getting it over with. I would walk back at an unremarkable speed, with my head held at an unremarkable angle, and repeat at an unremarkable volume the words that were given to me, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.” But that, according to Mark, is not what Salome does!
Instead, Salome rushes back to the throne like a ballerina jeté-ing across stage and shouts—with a twist, “I want you to bring me at once the head of John the Baptist—on a platter!” A head on a platter is a bit of a cliché nowadays. But from what we can tell, when Salome came up with this it was original, and inventive, and uniquely—what? Gruesome? Beautiful?
At first blush, it’s hard to call a severed head on a platter beautiful. But then we have to wonder why it is that there are so many paintings and sculptures of John’s head on Salome’s platter filling our museums and our churches. You have to wonder: If John was just a head, by itself, rolled off into some dark corner somewhere, without a platter, would his naked, neglected noggin have inspired so much great art?
It’s definitely not the gore that’s beautiful. But that platter is a statement, isn’t it? It’s the juxtaposition of the head and the plate. The platter became the vehicle of John’s message and story in death. And it’s surprising, and gruesome, and strangely beautiful.
So, why’d she do it? Why’d she do it? Was it merely for this strange aesthetic effect? Why does an artist bring a severed head on a platter into her stepdad uncle’s birthday dinner? Salome is a performance artist! It’s not that she’s overly fond of severed heads. She’s thinking of her audience. Her mother has asked her to present her with a gift. And while Salome doesn’t see a path to directly defying her mother’s request, she decides that instead of presenting her mother with John’s head, she’ll confront the whole feasting assembly of the powerful with the brutality and the extravagance of their rule (which was the same project that John the Baptist had dedicated his life to). She does it by placing John’s head on a serving platter and having it brought into the banquet for everybody to feast their eyes upon.
And now we’re meditating on a deeper level of beauty. Because Salome, who I think at least in part is an artist and a fighter—certainly “artist” and “fighter” are better descriptors for her than some of the words that history has assigned to her. So, Salome the artist, the fighter, the angry kid is asking us what purpose beauty serves. Are the beautiful things in our lives meant to distract us from the ugliness in our world? Or does the real beauty come when we find creative, subversive ways to call out the world’s ugliness?
In our poem, Meditation on Beauty, J. Estanislao Lopez struggles with this same question. Can the beauty of our trash at the bottom of the sea being recycled into coral reefs redeem us from the brutality of our environmental onslaught. Or is it all just a human amusement as the oceans warm and rise? The poem succeeds, in part, because its beauty is not just a surface beauty—it confronts us with those devastating warming waters, with the turtle who doesn’t see the surface beauty we see, who only lives or dies by what we do or do not accomplish. Lopez’s poem is like Salome’s platter in that way: beautiful and fierce.
I’d like to make the world more beautiful. How ‘bout you? You do? Well, what do you want to do? What are we willing to do? We won’t be chopping any heads. But we may have to take account of all the heads that have already been severed, all the necks currently lined up on the block. There are so many! And they have so many fierce stories to tell. And there are so many beautiful platters! But there are so few that we want to get blood on.
So, what platters, beloved, do we have to offer? What beautiful thing do we have that we’d be willing to sink to the bottom of the ocean with a prayer? What ugliness, what brutality or sin, what trouble can we crash into like dancers transforming the stage—transforming this weary world, with a twist?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations