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Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. Ca. 1600.

Solomon sacrificing to Idols

Jacques Stella (1596-1657). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. Ca. 1650.

The Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s wisdom. She came to Jerusalem to test Solomon with difficult questions. She came with camels loaded with gold and spices and precious stones. The Queen of Sheba and Solomon conversed and Solomon answered to all the challenges of the Queen. The Queen was breathless at the buildings of Solomon, at his retinue, his organisation of Israel and at his wisdom. She said the reports she had received of Solomon’s wisdom were all true. She concluded that Solomon surpassed in prosperity and wisdom all she had heard. She found Israel fortunate to be ruled by such a king and blessed was Yahweh to have set Solomon on the throne of Israel. The Queen of Sheba presented to the king the gold and spices and stones and no such wealth was again brought to the court after her. Then Solomon traded with the Queen and Solomon’s fleet brought back great cargoes of timber and precious stones from the land of the Queen of Sheba. Solomon used the wood for his buildings but also for the music instruments of the royal palace, for the harps and lyres. These were also of timber as no one had seen before. King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba everything she wished. Then she left and went home to her own country.

We can only exceptionally present an important painting of a religious subject based on a Bible scene from a female painter. Lady painters made pictures that were as fine in quality as most male painters, but we try to present pictures that are very special and if possible made by a great master that had an endurable influence on his or her epoch. Lady painters were very much at a large disadvantage because in the earlier centuries of religious representation, most of them were simply not allowed by their family to paint. Several lady painters that were indeed great masters stopped to paint when they got married. They might have become anonymous assistants to their father of husband.

Among the female painters that persevered in their art, many painted portraits, still lives or genre scenes. These pictures could be made entirely in-doors and without human models. A very few lady painters made landscapes, a few mythological scenes. Very few were inclined to paint religious scenes, as the Christian clergy preferred for churches and monasteries to commission to male painters. Thus, even when female painters were allowed to exercise their art by their closest family, they might have been ostracised by society. A few exceptions of female painters from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that are also quite well known and were recognised for their religious scenes in their life-times were Ser Pulisena Nelli, who was a nun, Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani. Among these, Fontana and Sirani worked in Bologna.

There was a tradition in Bologna of well-educated female artists. The University of Bologna was not only the first one of its kind founded in Europe, it was also open to women. Bologna had its woman saint, Saint Catherine of Bologna, who had lived in the fifteenth century and who had painted. The presence of a religious cult for a woman saint who painted may have helped in creating more tolerance to women artists in Bologna G34 .

Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna in 1552 and among all the cities of Western Europe, Bologna remained the most sympathetic and tolerant to lady painters. The first teacher of Lavinia was her father, Prospero Fontana, who was a well appreciated and established artist in Bologna. Prospero Fontana had many students, among whom also Ludovico Carracci, who would later found with other painters of his own family the Classicist tendency in Italian Baroque art. Lavinia Fontana’s fame was well established in the late 1570’s but for instance she would not have been allowed in the Academy of the Carracci painters of Bologna because that academy emphasised painting from the nude. Lavinia’s first known work dates from 1576 and it was already a religious painting, a Christ with angels G103 . In 1577 she married another Bolognese painter whose name was Gian Paolo Zappi and who had also been a student in her father’s workshop. Zappi remained almost anonymous in art history. At best he might have worked as an assistant in his wife’s workshop. But Lavinia Fontana seems to have birthed eleven children. Around 1592 she was so famous that the King of Spain asked her to paint a picture for his Escurial palace in Madrid. That was a fine proof of her social tenure at the times. She worked for churches in various Italian cities. In 1603 Pope Clemens VIII invited her to Rome. She painted many religious pictures there. She worked in the Palace of the Cardinal d’Este and she worked for the basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura on a painting that was however destroyed in a fire in the nineteenth century. She became a member of Rome’s San Lucca Academy, one of the best recognitions of her status and fame as an artist. She stayed in Rome until her death in 1614. The most famous Bolognese woman artist after her was Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), who died quite young.

Lavinia Fontana’s ‘The visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon’ was made during her last years in Bologna, around 1600. She was already around fifty years old then, but like male painters of her age she had not lost her inspiration or her skills in the art. The picture is probably also portraiture. Solomon might be the Duke of Mantua, Vincent I Gonzaga, and the Queen of Sheba the Duke’s wife Leonora de Medici. In 1600 the Duke and Duchess attended to the marriage of Maria de Medici in Florence. They may have travelled over Bologna and commissioned the work. The influence of Leonora de Medici on her husband may have helped in convincing her husband to have a picture painted by Lavinia Fontana, though Lavinia’s eminence was established enough. The Duke of Mantua was a ruling aristocrat and that he had ordered a work to a woman painter tells much about Lavinia’ Fontana’s fame.

Lavinia Fontana painted a scene at the court of an Italian city-state like Mantua in the late sixteenth century. An Italian noblewoman is received by an Italian Prince. The picture could as well have been the portrait of Duke of Mantua welcoming the return of his wife Leonora de Medici after a long voyage.

Solomon wears the usual symbols of his kingdom: the sceptre and the crown. His armour-bearer is near, holding his imposing sword. All the honour goes however to the lady that has come to his court, the Queen of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba wears a sumptuous robe lined with expensive lace. And she is followed by a rich court of other noble women, her ladies-in waiting. The Queen brought a jester with her and Lavinia Fontana painted a hunting dog to add a touch of genre intimacy, whereas a negro servant brings golden and silver presents to Solomon. Fontana painted in the background a nice landscape, either in a window or as a painting of such a landscape that hangs in the ceremonial hall.

The most striking effect of this painting on the viewer is one of refined court manners, of reverence for ladies, as indeed would have been the case in the courts of the late Renaissance Italian cities. The following of the Queen of Sheba is represented as the normal court of a visiting monarch, but it consists entirely of women. Lavinia Fontana painted with delicate skill the lace collars and lace sleeve linings of the ladies and with time these white lines stood out much against the other colours of the painting. She cared for her work, detailed much all the figures of the picture and even the background to an elegant whole. The main impression of the viewer is one of elegant courting, relations of respect between noble women and men. This is a theme that a woman would be sensitive to, would represent, and that would probably less come to the mind of male painters.

The composition is simple, and based on a division of three to five in length, which is the golden proportion. One scene is Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the longer scene is the Queen’s following. Portraiture was the main aim of the picture, so Lavinia used a simple horizontal representation of the figures. The picture has all the characteristics of a solemn Renaissance picture, even though Baroque and powerful realism had started in Rome with Caravaggio.

Fontana painted a magnificent scene however. The colours and details are splendid and shown in all detail. Fontana used her fine skills in the way she painted the robe of the Queen of Sheba and the dresses of the other ladies. Every face of the ladies-in-waiting is different, every poise is different, but all express the solemn dignity of the arrival at court. The group of ladies isolates itself from Solomon and the Queen. Every lady looks away from the two main figures. They ladies look either at the viewer, either at the incoming presents. They follow with their eyes the gesture of the dwarf. Thus isolated, the encounter of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba become more intimate, and Lavinia Fontana obtained the nice effect as if the ladies diverted their looks from the couple to give it a few moments of intimacy in which the tender feelings are exchanged that the court does not need to witness. Lavinia Fontana brought another such delicate touch in her representation in the fact that Solomon wears crown and sceptre, but the Queen of Sheba wears no crown. The lady just behind the Queen brings her crown. This is probably a delicate recognition of the supremacy of Solomon, and of the supremacy in the marriage of the Duke of Mantua over the Duchess, or can be so interpreted.

Lavinia Fontana leads the viewer over the picture. The viewer will normally start at the figure of the story, King Solomon. Solomon leans towards the Queen of Sheba and his arms open to her. When the viewer looks at the Queen, the Queen’s arms direct the eyes to the lower right side, where the dwarf with the red shirt is situated. The dwarf points to the negro servant entering with a plate full of golden and silver presents. And then the viewer’s gaze is led back over the various faces of the ladies-in-waiting, back to the left scene and to the Queen. The Queen of Sheba here is with her wealthy, brocaded robe the true main figure of the scene.

The ‘Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon’ is a large canvas and one of the most ambitious scenes of Lavinia Fontana. With such paintings she proved not to be the lesser artist of her male counterparts. Her composition, clarity of depiction and of message marks her still as a painter of the Renaissance, but with the sumptuous presentation of the court figures she introduces the more decorative period of Baroque.

Solomon adores foreign Gods

Solomon loved many foreign women. He had Egyptian, Moabite, Edomite, Sidonian and Hittite wives. Yahweh had said to the Israelites not to go among foreign women for they would distract Israel’s love from Yahweh. But Solomon was much attached to his foreign women. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. When Solomon was old these charmed his heart towards other gods so that his heart was not with Yahweh anymore. Solomon became a follower of Astarte. This was the goddess of the Sidonians and also of Milcom, an Ammonite abomination. Solomon built a temple for Chemosh, the god of Moab and also to the mentioned Milcon, the god of the Ammonites, on a mountain near Jerusalem. He did the same for all his foreign wives so that they could sacrifice to their own gods.

Yahweh was angry then. God said that since Solomon had sinned in this way he would tear the kingdom away from Solomon and give it to his servants. For the sake of Solomon’s father, David, however, Yahweh would not do this in Solomon’s lifetime but in the lifetime of his son. And for the sake of David and of Jerusalem Yahweh would leave whole one tribe of Solomon’s dynasty.

Hadad the Edomite rose now against Solomon. God raised a second enemy against Israel, Rezon son of Ehaida. Rezon captured Damascus and from that town he was hostile to Solomon. God also sent a revolt headed by Jeroboam, son of Nebat, an Ephraimite from Zeredah.

Jeroboam met Ahiiah the prophet on the road. Ahiiah had a new cloak and he tore this in twelve strips. Ahiiah gave ten strips to Jeroboam saying that he would tear the kingdom from Solomon’s hands and give thus ten tribes of Israel to Jeroboam. Ahiiah gave ten strips of his cloak to Jeroboam. Ahiiah then told two strips were still for Solomon, one for David and one for Jerusalem. But Ahiiah predicted Yahweh would only take the land from Solomon’s son. Solomon tried to capture and kill Jeroboam, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt and bided his time.

Solomon fell asleep with his ancestors after forty years of reign. He was buried in the City of David. His son Rehoboam succeeded him.

Solomon sacrifying to Idols

Jacques Stella was a French painter of the seventeenth century. Born in Lyon in 1596 from a family of Flemish origins, he entered the service of Cosimo II de Medici in Florence. He stayed a long time in Italy, like many other French painters of that period, from 1616 to 1635, in Florence, but also in Rome. He made major paintings in Florence but returned to Paris and was appointed painter of the French King in 1634. He was the official painter of the Cardinal Richelieu. He died in Paris in 1657. Stella was a Baroque artist, but of the Classicist trend in Baroque art. This trend might have been created by the Carracci family of Bologna in a reaction to Roman and Venetian extravagant depiction of scenes that were represented in all dramatic pathos and exuberance. One may reflect that there is a logic in that the Classicist, more austere form of Baroque was created in a city like Bologna, which was the first university town of Europe and where one would expect more thoughtful, sceptical and restrained handling of painterly themes. It should also not come as a surprise then that the Classicist trend was the main – but not the only – expression of France’s centralising, mathematical and philosophical, hierarchically structured logical spirit. France’s main painters of the early Baroque period like Simon Vouet and then Nicolas Poussin, Claude Gellée le Lorrain and Valentin de Boulogne, as well as Philippe de Champaigne adhered to the Classicist, academic view of the art of painting. Classicist Baroque and truly, resplendent Baroque elements could however interplay, be used simultaneously or intermittently by painters of this period, according to their inclination of the moment.

‘Solomon sacrificing to Idols’ is a picture made around 1650 when Jacques Stella was quite over fifty years old. He had a bad health then, he was frequently sick and the self-portrait he made, which can be found in the same Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, shows a pessimistic man dressed entirely in black, with flat but long flowing hair, with a large moustache on a long, emaciated but forceful face with sunken cheeks and characterised by a high and broad forehead of the intellectual, a broad nose, sensual lips and piercing eyes.

Jacques Stella painted also a ‘Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba’, so he was familiar with the subject and he may have known the picture ‘Solomon’s Judgement’ of his friend, Nicolas Poussin. Stella let aside for his ‘Solomon sacrifying to Idols’, for the sake of the theme, his more austere views that he had developed in his many pictures of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary about ten years earlier. He engaged in a complex scene with many figures and ample architecture in the background. But Stella often presented his scenes against extraordinary Roman architecture. He thus situated the theme inside an arched temple, showing partly the altar of the deities on the right side, and a pagan Greek-Roman structure on the left. Stella situated the adoration of the pagan gods in the large hall of the palace, enlightened by high burners that throw an eerie, scary, wild light on the scene. The viewer sees a frenetic scene of dancing women and youth, all jumping and humping around. In the middle of the frantic crowd kneels King Solomon. Women are behind him, entreating Solomon to worship idols, pointing forward to the idols and telling him to enter their own wild beliefs. Solomon complies. He trusts his hands forward over a sacrificial fire, towards the heathen priest, imploring eternal life and continued peace, youth and force. He worships golden vases, silver shields, busts of foreign abominations, all gathered together and exposed in a large niche of the hall. The scene happens at night of course, at the hour of witchcraft and dark orgies. Solomon will soon be in the same trance as all the women around him and give himself over to desperate pageantry.

Jacques Stella used the left diagonal as composition in his painting. He painted two oil burners high on the right side and a descending outlines goes over two other burners, situated more to the right and lower, over a dancing woman in blue cloak, to a knelt child and from there to the lower left corner. The dancing crowd is also a band of figures, whirling around in wild saccadic movements that contrast very much with the austere vertical directions of the background architecture and of the fire burners. Once a logical, solemn and dignified spirit reigned in the palace so that such a palace was built to honour a Yahweh of force and dignity; now in this temple takes place the frenzy of a nightly orgy.

Jacques Stella much broke symmetries in his picture to enhance the impression of the chaos of the people, but we do remark an area of red colour in the clothes of the dancing woman on the left an on the astonished courtier on the right.

Stella treated the subject of ‘Solomon sacrifying to idols’ as a horrifying picture of a disgraceful bacchant of an old man and he presented Solomon as a King that has all but lost all hope in Yahweh. Solomon has lost his wits and he abandons himself to the orgies of the night. That is a very pessimistic view indeed, and Jacques Stella also abandoned his usual strict, calm depiction for a scene of very many figures and for an ostentatious display of emotions in wild dancing. He therefore left his Classicist views somewhat for the exuberance of Baroque, but the Roman architecture remained very present. Stella clearly showed his contempt for what Solomon had become in his old age and the picture might be seen as an expression of fear or a fascination with the atavistic feelings that might have come to the mind of the aging Stella. The composition of the picture is fine, and all details marvellous. The frenetic movement is shown in a credible way. Stella’s message is clear, the content of horror clearly presented. Jacques Stella was a great painter, who understood the Bible story of Solomon worshipping idols well and who seemed to have been captivated by the subject.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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