Caravaggio, Oscar Wilde, Salome…and the head of the Baptist!

One of the most famous versions of the myth of Salome is the play written by Oscar Wilde, originally in French, in 1891. In this version, Salome is the daughter of Herodias, wife of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea.

The prophet John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod for criticizing his marriage to Herodias, who had previously been Herod’s brother’s wife. John the Baptist claims the consortium is incestuous.

In Wilde’s play, the action takes place during a party thrown by Herod probably in celebration of his own birthday.

Caravaggio's Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1607.

Caravaggio’s Salome and the Head of John the Baptist, 1607

During the party, Salome tries to seduce the prisoner John the Baptist but does not succeed in her intent. A number of signs indicate that tragedy looms ahead: the moon looks strange and ominous; a soldier/servant has just committed suicide; Herod, coming out of the party, slips in a pool of the blood shed by the victim, and hears a sound like the one made by the flapping of giant wings…These are all bad omens. What is going to happen?

Soon afterwards, Herod, drunk on wine, and somewhat infatuated by his stepdaughter Salome, begs her to dance for him. Herodias, her mother, does not think this is appropriate and tries to forbid her, but Salome acquiesces when Herod promises she can have anything she wishes in return.

Salome then dances the famous “dance of the seven veils”, which mesmerizes Herod. Time has come now for her to ask for her reward: she wants it to come on a silver platter. Herod laughs: “sure, she can have it on a silver platter…but what is it that she wants?” Salome demands: “The head of the Baptist”, catching Herod completely off guard. He is horrified by the request.

Her demand is fully appreciated by Herodias, who hates the prophet. She insists that her daughter should get what she wants. Herod tries to make Salome change her mind by offering her lots of alternative gifts, such as jewels and beautiful birds, but she is adamant: all she wants is the prophet’s head on a silver platter.

Her wish is granted: John the Baptist is decapitated. Caravaggio painted in gory detail a gruesome scene based on the myth, almost 300 years before the play was written.

Note: the text above is from the ebook: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: CARAVAGGIO. For further info on the series please CLICK HERE:

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Au revoir

Jorge Sette


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