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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/​7​4​9​1​839. 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: