Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
97 3/4 x 68 1/2 in. (248.5 x 174 cm)
Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund, 1960.3
The large, elegant figures in this monumental canvas enact one of the New Testament's most violent stories, the death of the prophet Saint John the Baptist. Saint John criticized King Herod for marrying Herodias, a woman who was the king's sister-in-law. As a result of Herodias's rage over the prophet's condemnation, St. John was thrown in prison. In the meantime, a dance presented by the beautiful Salome, Herodias's daughter, so pleased the king that he offered the girl whatever she wanted. Prompted by her vengeful mother, Salome asked for the head of Saint John. Guido Reni depicts the moment when Saint John's decapitated head is presented to Salome on a platter. Despite his grisly end, the saint's expression is oddly serene compared to Salome's cold expression and the nervous look of the page crouching at the right.
Reni's style represents a restrained form of the more exuberant Baroque movement. The art produced by Reni and his studio in Bologne attracted many followers who favored the artist's idealized, balanced figures and compositions inspired by Renaissance artists. In Salome, a late work, Reni used a limited palette, employing a narrow range of colors. A dark background frames the central figures, who vibrate in soft tones—yellow, white, and green against pink. The luminous transparency of the colors is heightened by the loose brushwork with which they are laid down. Certain areas that are especially sketchy, such as those around Salome's feet and the page's legs, raise questions about whether the painting was completed, an issue unresolved by historians of Reni's later work.