Salome's Platter

The Gospels don’t name her, but we know from other historical accounts that Herodias had a daughter named Salome. And history has not been particularly kind to Salome. Is that fair?

Christian theologians have interpreted her as a lewd temptress (all that dancing…), conniving, cold, cruel, and feminine.

Classic Western art has used her as an excuse to sexualize and eroticize the body of an (often young) girl, dressed in revealing silks, her face flushed with her Oriental dancing. And Salome was frequently painted receiving the platter with John’s head on it – never Herod or Herodias, but young Salome – looking off into the distance, aloof or silly.

Modern Western art has continued the trend – Salome the child has been transformed into the archetypal femme fatale – not merely lascivious, but a sadist and a psychopath sexually aroused by severed heads. 

And so Salome has shouldered the blame (as women and girls often do). Even though Herod imprisoned John; and even though Herod made a ridiculous promise (only made in stories like these) to give Salome anything she asks for – as if he can assume it will be a nice request, but then it’s not nice, but he has to do it anyway because of his manly honor, but it’s not his fault because he was deceived by a woman; and even though it was Herodias’ grudge against John; and even though it is Herodias’ request that John lose his head; and even though Salome is a kid stuck in the middle of the great powers of her day – king father, queen mother, imperial guests, and divine prophet; it is Salome hoisting the platter in her skimpy dress staring vacantly at the horizon who shoulders the blame for John’s beheading. Is it fair?

Can you imagine? You’re thirteen. You’ve just nailed your dance recital. Your number was a birthday present for your stepdad, Herod, who also happens to be the king, and who also happens to be your uncle. It’s weird. Anyway – he loves it! And so do all the other men. It’s weird. Anyway – this might finally get your mom off your back because she’s been so stressed out about this stupid party. And then Herod says you can have whatever you want. And you stop yourself just before you blurt out “Pony!” because you know your mom’s been having a tough time. You decide to do something nice and ask her what you should ask for – as a gift to her now that you’ve given his royal highness uncle step-dad his gift. “My sweet girl,” mom whispers. “Always thinking of others! Be a dear and ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Is it fair?

What would you have felt in that moment? What would you have thought as you walked in your leotard and tights from Herodias to Herod to execute your mom’s request? I can imagine myself thinking something like the opening line from this evening’s poem: “There are days I think beauty has been exhausted.”

Have you ever felt like that? Not just that the world around you is ugly, but that your participation in the world – your dance, your passion, your gift – is suddenly revealed to be a part of the world’s brutality. The ringing of the applause in your ears turns from universal praise for your art to the rally of a pitiless, partisan assault on some poor prophet. And what will you do? What will you do?

Would you have defied your mother if you were Salome? When you were maybe thirteen-years-old? I don’t know. Defiance of one’s parents takes either the absolute certainty that they will never stop loving you or the ability to leave them behind and make it on your own without their support. And I don’t imagine that Salome had either of those luxuries. So, what would you have done?

I can imagine myself walking slowly and unsteadily back to the throne – unsure of myself, torn to pieces. I’d be frantically running through my narrow options, desperately seeking for the margin of error that will let me slip free without destroying myself. But that’s not what Salome does.

I can imagine myself walking up to the throne with a lump in my throat barely able to speak. I would whisper to the crowd that mother wants the Baptist’s head, and then in the commotion that followed, I’d slip out the side door. And no one would associate me with the death of the hairy old prophet in the dungeons. No one would blame me. All they would remember was my dancing – my beautiful dancing. But that’s not what Salome does.

I can imagine myself, defeated and empty, just getting it over with. I would walk back at an unremarkable speed with my head held at an unremarkable angle and repeat with unremarkable volume the words that were given to me “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.” But that – according to Mark – is not what Salome does.

Instead, she rushes back to the throne like a ballerina jeteing across stage and shouts with a twist, “I want you to bring me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” A head on a platter is a bit cliché nowadays, but from what we can tell when Salome came up with this it was original, and inventive, and uniquely – what? Gruesome? Beautiful?

At first blush, it’s hard to call a severed head on a platter beautiful. But then we have to wonder why it is that there are so many paintings and sculptures of John’s head on Salome’s platter filling museums and churches. You have to wonder: if John was just a head by itself rolled into a corner somewhere without a platter, would his naked noggin have made it into so much great art?

It’s not the gore that’s beautiful. It’s that platter. It’s the juxtaposition of head and plate. The platter became the vehicle of John’s message and story in death. And it’s surprising, and gruesome, and strangely beautiful.

So, why’d she do it? Was it merely for this strange aesthetic effect?

Why does an artist bring a severed head on a platter into her step-dad-uncle’s birthday dinner? Salome is a performance artist. It’s not that she’s overly fond of severed heads. She’s thinking of her audience. Her mother has asked her to present her with a gift. And while Salome doesn’t see a path to directly defy her mother’s request, she decides that instead of presenting her mother with John’s head, she can confront the whole feasting assembly of the powerful with the brutality and extravagance of their rule – which was the same project that John the Baptist had dedicated his life to – by placing John’s head on a serving platter and having it brought in for everyone to feast upon. And now we’re meditating on a deeper level of beauty.

Because Salome – who I think it at least in part is an artist and a fighter, certainly artist and fighter are better descriptors for her than some that history has assigned to her – Salome the artist, the fighter, the pissed off kid is asking us what purpose beauty serves. Are the beautiful things in our lives meant to distract us from the ugliness of the world? Or does real beauty come when we find creative, subversive ways to call out the world’s ugliness?

In our poem this evening “Meditation on Beauty,” J. Estanislao Lopez struggles with this same question. Can the beauty of our trash at the bottom of the sea being recycled into coral reefs redeem us from the brutality of environmental degradation? Or is it all just a human amusement as the oceans warm and rise? The poem succeeds in part because its beauty is not just a surface beauty – it confronts us with those warming waters, with the turtle who doesn’t see the surface beauty we see, who only lives or dies by what we do or do not accomplish. Lopez’s poem is like Salome’s platter in that way: beautiful and fierce.

I want to make the world more beautiful. Do you? Do you? What do you want to do? What are we willing to do?

I won’t be chopping any heads. But we may have to take account of the severed heads. We may need to build them a display case – there are so many. We may need to write them a song they can sing in, lined up on a row of stools on stage with the microphones down real low. They have so many stories to tell. And there are so many platters, but so few we want to get blood on.

What platters do we have to offer, Beloved? What beautiful thing do we have that we’d be willing to sink to the bottom of the ocean with a prayer? What ugliness, what brutality or sin, what trouble can we crash into like dancers transforming the stage, transforming the weary world with a twist?