The Bible site of the beheading of John the Baptist has inspired many artists
There are thousands of images and representations related to Herodian Machaerus in the history of art. The most common subjects are Salome bringing the head of the Baptist on a salver to Herodias and the beheading of John the Baptist itself. These portrayals—in Bible illustrations, frescos, reliefs, icons in churches, and paintings—usually reflect contemporary European royal castles and courts with the figures wearing medieval, renaissance, or baroque costumes rather than ancient garments.
The German explorer Ulrich J. Seetzen rediscovered the ruins of Machaerus in 1807, and archaeological excavations began at the royal castle in 1968.
Just a hundred years before these excavations, Edward Armitage made, in 1868, a fascinating oil painting, titled Herod’s Birthday Feast, which is today among the treasures of the Guildhall Art Gallery in London. The Victorian painter was an alumnus of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Although the Gospel scene representation is based on Armitage’s imagination, it is the closest to the architectural and archaeological reality of the Herodian royal court of Machaerus in the history of art: The Doric peristyle, the height of the columns (380 cm; about 12.5 ft), the metope-triglyph frieze together with the coronation elements, and the Pompeian red color were all proven accurate by the archaeological excavations. He may have been inspired by Auguste Parent’s book Machaerous, which was published in Paris that same year. In Armitage’s representation, the diademed Antipas is sitting in the center of the open-air courtyard on his movable throne on the left side; his wife Herodias, the Hasmonean royal princess, sits next to him; and Salome, her daughter, dances before them all.
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Three additional masterpieces stand out in art history for their representation of the throne of Herod Antipas: two from Florence and one from Lille.
(1) the 13th-century dome mosaic of the famous Baptistery of Florence (by an unknown master), titled Saint John Reproaches Herod and Herodias;
(2) Giovanni Fattori’s painting Saint John the Baptist Rebuking Herod (1856), located in the Gallery of the Academy of Florence; and
(3) Antoine Ansiaux’s painting St. John Rebuking Herod (1822), today in the Palais des Beaux-Arts of Lille, France.
Although separated by six centuries, the artistic structure of the two compositions from Florence is the same: The throne of Herod Antipas appears in an apsidal niche on the right, and he is in the company of Herodias and Salome. John the Baptist faces the three royals on the left, with a rod in his hand. However, while the anonymous artist of the Florence Baptistry dome imagined Corinthian columns, Fattori envisioned a colonnade with Egyptian papyrus-capitals.
Fattori was also influenced by Antoine Ansiaux’s painting, executed two decades earlier, with nearly the same title, size,and topic. Once again, the same artistic structure appears in Ansiaux’s painting as in the other two compositions—but with even closer similarities between Ansiaux’s and Fattori’s paintings. In both, Salome wears blue clothes, and the right feet of Antipas are practically identical. However, Ansiaux represents a lion-armed throne, while Fattori depicts a sphinx-armed throne, which continues the Egyptian influence in his piece. The two paintings are also virtually the same size(about 9 by 11 ft).
These representations help us envision the dramatic biblical scenes that unfolded at Machaerus Historical references meet archaeological evidence—all contextualized by the imaginative representations of these intuitive artists.
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