WEYDEN, Rogier van der
(b. 1400, Tournai, d. 1464, Bruxelles)
St John Altarpiece (right panel)1455-60
Oil on oak panel, 77 x 48 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
The right panel depicts the Beheading of St John the Baptist.
As a lascivious worldly beauty, Salome wears a magnificent dress in the fashion of French princesses, with exotic decorative items including the pointed head-dress. The background shows the scene of the banquet in which Salome's mother, Herodias, stabs the decapitated head of the Baptist in her hatred for him.
The shallow zone of the foreground is set off by the strong effects of depth in the side panels, where the rooms are almost like tunnels. This makes the narrative backgrounds of the left and right panels subordinate. In the beheading of the Baptist, the body of the executed man is part of the foreground group, and the executioner can set his sword against John's right shoulder, shown in a flat plane. At the same time, however, two mourners who belong to the background are placed directly above the cellar stairs where the dead man is lying, and a figure diminished to about one-third of the size of the foreground figures appears to be standing only a little farther back from them.
The side panels of the St John Altarpiece do not merely show the beginning and end of the Baptist's earthly life. The parallels between the pictorial motifs also express moral conflict. On the right, the unchaste Salome, in magnificent and seductive clothing, holds the Baptist's head. She and the executioner are turning away from each other and from their victim, as if painfully conscious of the crime that has been committed.
Interestingly, however, the figure of Salome looks like a variant on the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation scene of the St. Columba Altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), where the figure's knees are placed apart in an even more balletic position. Rogier was obviously able to make effective use of this elaborate and artificial pose in various circumstances, and only the worldly magnificence of Salome's dress and the context cause the viewer to assess it differently here. In addition, Salome's grave and melancholy face does not in fact differ much from the face of the Virgin Mary in that Annunciation, although in this later version it is leaning at rather too pronounced an angle to express grace. The artist has not set out simply to make the figure of Salome merely despicable; indeed, in the context of this scene, her noble features give her a touch of complex ambivalence.