Whether Salome's role in biblical history was fictional or real, it was the adoption and adaptation of the story by later painters, playwrights, and dancers that ensured her lasting fame. In almost every medium, artists have explored Salome, from medieval bas-reliefs in France, to 13th-century Italian mosaics, to Gustave Moreau's intricate 19th-century watercolors. Artists have long been inspired by Salome's holding the head of John the Baptist, finding in the event a compelling story of eroticism and violence.
But with the writing of his 1891 play Salome, Oscar Wilde ushered in a new era of interpretation for the story—a portrait of Salome that has overtaken the Gospels. "It was left to Oscar Wilde...to give Salome a fame that would reach far beyond the elite artistic and intellectual circles where she ruled from her distant pedestal," writes author and former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley in her book Sisters of Salome. "Wilde's Salome would become a pop icon."
The play was banned before its first scheduled performance, whipping a waiting public into a frenzy even before the appearance of accompanying erotic illustrations in the 1894 English version by a 22-year-old artist named Aubrey Beardsley. The German composer Richard Strauss used Wilde's text as the libretto for his hugely successful 1905 opera, Salome. Salome's performance finally had a name: The Dance of the Seven Veils, an elaborately sexual unwrapping that makes Herod's lust understandable, though not excusable.
"It's a striptease," says Bentley, who has no doubt that Salome's dance was deliberate. "However you cloak it, whether it's classical ballet or striptease, dance is sexual," she says, noting that women who dance have often been portrayed in history as dangerous women. "I think the Bible sends the message that Salome is a bad woman—meaning sexual woman," says Bentley. "Even though the mother is complicit, even though the stepfather orders John's death, Salome is ultimately held responsible for the death of a holy man—a classic case of blaming the woman."
And what end did Salome herself meet? According to the legend presented by historian Nicephorus, Salome fell through the ice on a frozen lake, the shards piercing her neck and decapitating her—a fittingly dramatic death for a woman who so easily solicited murder. The historian Josephus, however, tells us that Salome led a fairly routine existence, marrying and bearing three children by her cousin Aristobulus, living out her life without further scandal.