FATALE & the History of Salomé

FATALE promotional art

This is the third time I’m writing about a digital work by Flemish duo Tale of Tales, and that alone says something about the capacity of their releases to inspire discussion. I started with the peaceful MMO The Endless Forest, and also did a short bit on The Graveyard. Continuing the chronological trend would leave The Path as my next subject – arguably their best and most game-like work – but writing about that fascinating psychological horror piece still seems rather daunting. Instead, I’m sticking to the slightly more manageable FATALE and exploring a bit of what it has to say about the figure of Salomé and how she’s been treated throughout history.

FATALE is best described as a digital art vignette, with an explorable 3D scene at its centre, taking Oscar Wilde’s version of the story as its main inspiration. The first scene is short and simple, and presented from the perspective of John the Baptist or Jokanaan, as Wilde has it. John is stuck in the cistern, while aboveground, Salomé is performing her dance of the seven veils for Herod. While waiting for the dance to end, John is free to roam the cistern, and words he has prophesied float around his head. After the dance ends, and Salomé has made her famous request – though John doesn’t hear it – the executioner comes in, slays John, and the screen goes black.

The main part of FATALE starts here. The scene is now outside, the courtyard, at night, with the moon looming largely overhead, as in Wilde’s play. It is not immediately clear whose perspective the ‘player’ has in this scene – I’ll return to this issue later. The purpose of this scene is to allow the player to explore the three-dimensional picture Tale of Tales have made, with ambient music, sound effects and eerie voices provided by Jarboe and Kris Force, the duo that so successfully scored The Path. It is something of a symbolist piece, with props relating to the story scattered around the courtyard: the musical instruments used during the dance, the executioner standing guard, Salomé scattered veils, Salomé herself looking out over the courtyard, the head of Jokanaan next to her on a plate, listening to her iPod. There is a limited form of progress in the scene, in the form of snuffing out and stealing the different lights on the scene: candles and lamps. Each captured light can be used to revisit and explore parts of the scene, each more static, painting-like snapshots of the whole. When all lights are out, dawn breaks, and with the moon in sight, the view dissipates and the scene is over.

This ends the program, but upon restarting it, the ‘final’ scene is playable. Again, it is the dance of the seven veils, but this time from the perspective of king Herod, for whom Salomé dances. This scene, set to music by Gerry de Mol, is brilliantly done using rotoscoping of an actual dancer (Eléonore Valere Lachky), animated by Laura Raines Smith, and it is most likely one of the best instances of dance art in a digital medium; you can view the making of the dance here: https://vimeo.com/7491839. At the end of the dance, Salomé gracefully gestures towards the cistern, indicating to the viewer the gruesome payment she demands for her performance.

Before I return to some more thoughts on FATALE, first a little background. As many readers will know, the story of Salomé is best known from the New Testament, and it is included in many retellings of the life of Jesus. With the weight of two thousand years of cultural adaptations weighing down on us, it came as a surprise to me that the story is actually very marginal in the Bible. In fact, it is found only in Matthew (14:1-12) and Marc (6:14-29), and as a brief reference in Luke (9:7-9), who only refers to the beheading of John the Baptist. Salomé is not even named in the Bible; she is known only as Herodias’ daughter. Both Matthew and Marc agree on the basics of the tale, which I reproduce here in the version of Marc:

14 And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad:) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.
15 Others said, That it is Elias. And others said, That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets.
16 But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.
17 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her.
18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.
19 Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:
20 For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.
21 And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;
22 And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.
23 And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
24 And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.
25 And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
26 And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.
27 And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,
28 And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
29 And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.

[Marc 6:14-29, King James Version]

It seems rather clear to me that in the biblical account, the plot revolves around Herodias. Herod is not particularly fond of John, but he fears the outrage he will cause should the prophet be put to death. Herodias apparently has no such reservations, and she opportunistically uses Herod’s oath to her daughter to have John executed, thereby taking revenge for his condemnation of their marriage. The motivations of the unnamed Salomé are not explored, and for all the verses tell us, she is merely a girl or a young woman (innocently?) performing a dance routine.

However, two millennia is a long time for a character to evolve. That period sees the general depiction of Salomé transform from a relatively inconspicuous player in a political conflict to a sensual seductress, a player in a far more complicated marital struggle, and a madwoman.

In renaissance art, Salomé was already a favourite subject of artists, though at this point, she was still presented as a chaste young woman, often dressed according to the fashion of the time. I’ve selected four examples, which are viewable below. Though of course biblical themes were obvious choices for painters, it seems this scene spoke to the imagination in particular, which is a testament to the power of the story, even in its summary biblical form. The ‘shot’ where Salomé presents John’s head on a plate is indeed a powerful image.

Titian – Salome (~1515)

Caravaggio – Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (~1607)

Peter Paul Rubens – Feast of Herod (17th century, 1st half)

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Feast of Herod (1531)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thus far, using only the web as a resource, I have been unable to accurately trace the history of the Salomé figure in visual art, particularly in the period following the renaissance. It seems, however, that after a hiatus in popularity, the visual and thematic interpretation of Salomé changed, starting in the 19th century. Her appearance (as well as the setting) is more explicitly orientalised, and her behaviour and presentation are now more and more laden with sexuality and seduction, conforming to the upcoming archetype of the femme fatale. Again, a small selection of works are presented here to illustrate this:

Gustave Moreau – Salome in the Garden (1878)

Alphonse Mucha – Salome (1897)

Gustave Moreau – Salome Dancing Before Herod (~1875)

Gaston Bussière – La danse de Salome ou les papillon d’or (1923)

Franz von Stuck – Salome (1906)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to Wikipedia, Christian traditions “depict her as an icon of dangerous female seductiveness”; however, this observation is unsourced, and to me not directly visible in the paintings predating the 19th century. As far as I can see at the moment, her iconisation and sexualisation only really took off with a renewed interest in her character in the second half of that century. In 1877, Gustave Flaubert, around the time of Moreau‘s paintings, published a short story entitled “Herodias”. This is one of the first elaborations on the story, and of great influence on later works. In it, the political machinations of Herod’s court are depicted in much more detail, as well as Herodias’ motivations for wanting the death of John. More importantly for the analysis here, in Flaubert’s version Herodias actively grooms Salomé to be seductive, as part of her scheme to move Herod to have John executed. Salomé herself is still more of an accomplice than an independent actor, though this is one of the first sources where she is explicitly sexualised.

Crucial for the further development of the figure of Salomé, as already mentioned, was Oscar Wilde’s one-act play. Originally written in French and published in 1891, it is no doubt the most famous modern interpretation of the story, not in the least because of the illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, which accompany many editions. As Nancy Thuleen points out in her essay on the play, Wilde drew heavily on earlier 19th century versions of the story, as well as Moreau’s paintings, but one of the things that makes his version special is that he makes Salomé, rather than her mother or someone else, central to the plot.

Wilde’s Salomé is a plagued young woman, obsessed by the idea of chastity. It seems to me that she feels tainted by the lascivious advances of her stepfather Herod, as well as the aspersions cast on her mother’s marriage by John, and perhaps by extension on herself. She looks to the Moon, that central symbol of the play, as a virgin:

How good to see the moon! She is like a little piece of money. You would think she was a little silver flower. The moon is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty. Yes, she is a virgin. She has never defiled herself. She has never abandoned herself to men, like the other goddesses.

Her attraction to John, often seen as sexualised in nature, seems to me merely an aspect of this same desire to be free of her family’s sins. One of the things that attracts her to him is that she is very much aware that her mother hates him and her stepfather fears him. Upon meeting him, she notices his pallor, and compares him to the Moon:

How wasted he is! He is like a thin ivory statue. He is like an image of silver. I am sure he is chaste as the moon is. He is like a moonbeam, like a shaft of silver. His flesh must be cool like ivory. I would look closer at him.

She continues to observe his body, discovering hideous aspects in him as well, but ultimately she desires a kiss of him, which he of course does not grant her, spurning her for being a “daughter of adultery”.

The rest of the story is clear: Herod lusts after Salomé and she rebuffs his advances. Only when Herod promises her whatever she wishes does she consent to dance for him. After the dance, she asks for John’s head, this time without her mother’s urging, though of course Herodias approves of her daughter’s choice. In the climax of the play, before she is killed by mad Herod’s guards, Salomé gets her kiss from the severed head of John the Baptist.

Beardsley’s illustration of the play’s climax

Since Wilde’s play and the Richard Strauss opera adaptation, I don’t think there have been any radical changes to the Salomé story, at least not in ways that have transformed the general view as much as the 19th century artistic currents have.

Back to FATALE. It’s a remarkable work of art how the relatively static scene created by Tale of Tales posits many of the questions I have addressed in this article. Its Salomé is inscrutable, the way she leans over the wall, listening to her music. She stares directly at the empty throne of Herod, as if daring her absent stepfather to react. Herodias stand statuesquely to the side, watching her daughter.

The whole family together?

At this point I’m inclined to say that the player’s perspective in the main part of FATALE is above all that of Herod. Unlike the other main figures in the story (Salomé, Herodias, John, the executioner), he is nowhere present in the scene. In addition, the task of snuffing out the lights corresponds directly to his words in Wilde’s play:

Surely some terrible thing will befall. Manasseh, Issachar, Ozias, put out the torches. I will not look at things. I will not suffer things to look at me. Put out the torches! Hide the moon! Hide the stars! Let us hide ourselves in our palace, Herodias. I begin to be afraid.

Many of the vantage points in the scene are centered around the figure of Salomé, allowing the disembodied viewer to study her form in detail, much like the desire of Herod. In one of the final tableaux, a gust of wind can even draw off Salomé’s final veil, which she has lazily drawn about herself. At the same time, John’s bloody head is always close at hand to remind one of the price of Herod’s desire. A picture glimpsed through the heavy door behind Salomé perhaps reveals another clue: a king’s portrait, head averted in shame.

Without at least a basic knowledge of the story of Salomé, FATALE will perhaps be a bit obtuse to play. However, with the proper background – this article is more than enough – you will be able to enjoy the interesting perspectives that this digital art piece offers. Unlike films or many proper video games which rely heavily on narrative drive, a piece such as this allows for a calmer contemplation of a narrative already vaguely known, but seen from a new perspective. As the older paintings seek to invite the audience to think back to the biblical story, so does FATALE draw the player into thinking about the history of Salomé, while exploring its visual and musical language.

Further reading: