The subject is taken from the New Testament (Mark 6: 22–9) and shows Salome being presented with the head of Christ’s cousin, Saint John the Baptist. The swarthy executioner dangles the severed head by its hair above a dish; Salome turns away as if she cannot bear to look at the prize King Herod granted her for her dancing. She seems to gaze toward someone outside the picture – perhaps her mother, who ordered her to ask Herod for the Baptist’s head.
The figure of Salome is based on a now lost composition of Leda and the Swan by Leonardo, and the strong contrast of light and shade is also influenced by him. The pinkish red of Salome’s robe and her flesh tones have faded, affecting the contrast between the complexions of the executioner, Salome and the severed head. The brown stripes of the tablecloth were once a rich green.
The subject of Giampietrino’s painting is taken from the New Testament (Mark 6: 22–9). Salome is being presented with the head of Christ’s cousin, Saint John the Baptist, which she has been granted by King Herod as a reward for her dancing. She turns away as though she cannot bear to look at the severed head that the swarthy executioner dangles by its hair above her dish. She seems to gaze toward someone outside the picture – perhaps her mother, Herodias, who ordered her to request the Baptist’s execution. Herodias held a grudge against him for saying that her marriage to Herod, her husband’s brother, was unlawful.
The figure of Salome is based on a lost drawing of Leda and the Swan by Leonardo and the strong chiaroscuro is also influenced by him. The figure appears again, this time nude, in Giampietrino’s Suicide of Cleopatra in the Louvre, Paris. The same cartoon was evidently used for both pictures. When superimposed on one another, the figures are almost exactly aligned apart from the outstretched arm. The figure of the executioner in Salome seems less convincingly constructed, which may be because he has been fitted into a pre-existing composition.
Giampietrino was one of a group of Milanese painters – including Boltraffio, Bramantino, Cesare da Sesto and Luini – who adopted Leonardo’s manner, incorporating his motifs and emulating his painterly effects. This picture is typical of Giampietrino’s work; he often painted small-scale half-length representations of biblical scenes, frequently in multiple versions. The strong contrasts of light and shade and the dark backgrounds of Giampietrino’s small panels are an attempt to copy the striking effects of Leonardo’s paintings. We do not know how much contact Giampietrino actually had with Leonardo’s painting methods and we can’t assume that his imitation of Leonardo’s effects was based on knowledge of his techniques.
Changes in the materials over the 500 years since the painting was made have affected its appearance. The stripes on the tablecloth, which are now a deep rust colour, were once a rich green. The green pigment verdigris is particularly subject to changes over time. The loss of the green has changed the balance with the other red, pink and brown tones of the picture.
Fading of the red lake pigment has also altered the appearance of Salome’s flesh. While some colour remains in her face, her complexion is unnaturally pale; it was probably once much more pink. A semi-transparent undergarment passing across Salome’s shoulders and over her breast is now very difficult to see because of these changes. The sense of contrast has also been lost between the delicate flesh of Salome, the swarthy complexion of the executioner and the deathly pallor of the head of Saint John the Baptist.
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