Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them—a representation of Salomé, conceived in this fashion:

A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.

In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.

His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.

Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.

In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.

Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green.

With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne—a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic.

This conception of Salomé, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:

But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.

Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.

And she, being before instructed of her mother, said: Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.

And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.

And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.

And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.

But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher’s wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.

In Gustave Moreau’s work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes at last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salomé of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.


- Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours

Herodium, Judean Desert, West Bank

Herodium was a fortress built by Herod the Great from 23 to 15 BC in memory of his victory over Antigonus in 40 BC. He was considered one of the greatest builders of his time—his palace was built on the edge of the desert and was situated atop an artificial hill, geography did not daunt him. He died at his winter palace in Jericho, however according to his wishes, he is believed to have been buried at Herodium. The city was conquered and destroyed by the Romans in 71 AD.

This is the only site that was named after King Herod the Great. It was known by the Crusaders as the “Mountain of Franks”. Arab locals call it Jabal al-Fourdis (“Mountain of Paradise”).

The ruins are located in the Judean desert, 6 km to the south east of Bethlehem.

More about Herod the Great

More about Herodium


The Murthly Hours

f. 12r: Magi, or Kings, Before Herod Scotland, France, England (c. 1280s) From the National Library of Scotland:

The Murthly Hours is one of Scotland’s great medieval treasures. Written and illuminated in Paris in the 1280s, it also contains full-page miniatures by English artists of the same period, and was one of the most richly decorated manuscripts in medieval Scotland. Medieval additions include probably the second oldest example of Gaelic written in Scotland.

The entire manuscript has been reproduced here. In the Folios section, you can browse page by page or select a folio from the complete list of titles.

Laurel submitted to medievalpoc:

Herod in the Murthly Hoursdigital.nls.uk

Thought you might be interested in this miniature from the Murthly Hours, which was produced in England in the 13th century.

Love this blog so much and I think you’re doing really important work. Thank you!

Wow, what a great submission!

I’m noticing more and more that it seems like Herod is one of those figures that was commonly depicted with dark or black skin in European Medieval manuscripts, and that at some unknown point, he became just another white figure. There is probably a rather good paper to be written and research to be done on whys and hows of that. ;)

Also interesting is how this is a more pan-European document than a lot of the manuscripts I’ve posted. It was produced partially in Paris, which was a hub of manuscript Illuminators (including many women, FYI), but was used in Scotland (with some of the oldest Gaelic text, as mentioned above) and had English miniatures included as well!

If it wasn’t clear, you can read the book and examine the miniatures here, although their viewer’s not the best.

Caeserea Maritima, home of Pontius Pilate

In approximately one decade (c. 23-15 BCE), local and Roman builders working for King Herod of Judaea constructed the largest artificial harbour ever built in the open sea up to that point. The scale and complexity of this project, along with the rapidity of its execution, are remarkable even if judged by modern standards. It ranks as one of the most impressive engineering accomplishments of the Augustan Age.

The city has been populated through the late Roman and Byzantine era. Its ruins lie on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, about halfway between the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, on the site of Pyrgos Stratonos (“Straton’s Tower”).

This city is the location of the 1961 discovery of the Pilate Stone, the only archaeological item that mentions the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, by whose order Jesus was crucified.

King Herod's Tomb a Mystery Yet Again

Herod the Great, the king of Judea who ruled not long before the time of Jesus, seems to have eluded historians once again.

In 2007 archaeologists announced they had found the great king’s tomb, a surprisingly modest mausoleum that was part of the Herodium, a massive complex built by Herod on a cone-shaped hill in the desert outside Jerusalem.

But what everyone thought was his final resting place may not be. The modest structure is too small and modest for the ostentatious king; its mediocre construction and design are at odds with Herod’s reputation as a master planner and builder, archaeologists now say. Read more.

Old coins force re-think on Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Israeli archaeologists on Wednesday said they had found ancient coins that overturned widely-held beliefs about the origins of Jerusalem’s Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

For centuries, many thought the wall was built by King Herod - also infamous, in the Christian tradition, for his efforts to hunt down the baby Jesus in the original Christmas story.

But archaeologists said they had found coins buried under the wall’s foundations minted 20 years after King Herod’s death in 4 B.C., showing the structure was completed by his successors.


Mattia Preti, The Feast of Herod + details (1656-1661)

The Gospels recount Herodias’ anger at John the Baptist for speaking out against her marriage to Herod, her brother-in-law. Herod held a feast for state dignitaries, and Herodias considered this the perfect opportunity to exact her revenge on John. She convinced her daughter Salome to dance for Herod and his guests. Pleased, Herod asked Salome what she would like as a reward. As instructed by her mother, Salome requested the head of John the Baptist.

There is a subtle, uncomfortable tension in this painting as Salome enters with John the Baptist’s head. Herodias, looks lost in thought - she doesn’t even look at her prize sitting on the platter, but rather clenches her napkin and grasps her clothing. Her husband Herod looks directly out at Salome, gesturing toward Herodias and gripping his chair tightly as if to say “This terrible event was fashioned by these two women, these femme fatales … not by me,” reflecting his hesitation to execute John which is recorded in the Gospels. But the deed is done, and beautiful, young Salome has her trophy, while her mother and Herod share a silent, mutual disgust at result of Herodias’ own anger.