GOZZOLI, Benozzo
(b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia)

The Dance of Salome

Tempera on panel, 23,8 x 34,3 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

A contract for an altarpiece, executed between the artist and the Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin, gives explicit instructions. The artist "is obligated to apply himself to this painting so that the said picture will excel, or at least favourably compare with, every good picture made thus far by [him]." The appearance of the central section is carefully prescribed: the Virgin is to be flanked by John the Baptist and five other named saints "with all the usual attributes." Gozzoli must also "with his own hand...paint at the bottom, that is in the predella...the stories of said saints."

This is one of those predella panels. And here Gozzoli had the freedom to exercise his particular skill as a storyteller. In this one small painting he has packed three episodes related in Matthew 14:6-8. At the centre of the painting, we see the twirling figure of Salome, dancing to entertain Herod and his guests, all of whom wear fifteenth-century finery. Herod was so enchanted that he promised Salome whatever she might ask, and prompted by her mother, who sought revenge against John, Salome's request was bloody: "Give me the head of John the Baptist." There inside an archway at left, the saint kneels to be beheaded. And at the rear Salome presents the severed head to her mother.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 15 minutes):
Richard Strauss: Salome, closing scene