There are times when upon entering a room in a gallery, one feels inexplicably drawn towards a work, as though some unseen force is pulling you towards it. This may be a consequence of the work’s ‘aura’ of which Walter Benjamin wrote, or it may be the result of an artist’s ability to stimulate specific curiosity – even in a room crowded with visual delights.
That this potency is evident in Matthias Stom’s Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, (1630-32 and on loan from The National Gallery), is no great surprise. Stom is considered a master of the Dutch Golden Age, compared favourably with Caravaggio for his ability to compose scenes of high, visceral, religiously inspired drama rendered theatrical by wonderful illumination. If one were to seek evidence of the Baroque’s influence on the artists of the Southern Netherlands, then look no further.
The painting depicts the Gospel account (Mark Ch. 6, v. xxii – xxviii), of Herodias and Salome being presented with the head of John the Baptist on a charger – one of the grizzliest accounts in the New Testament, save perhaps the crucifixion of Christ. Stom does not flinch from sparing us the horror of the events depicted, instead arranging the figures in such a way as to invite us into the scene, similar to Caravaggio’s arrangement for The Supper at Emmaus (1601), in which a space is reserved for the spectator.
Stom’s dramatic lighting, reflected in the toga-like white shirt of the executioner, focuses our gaze on the pale green cadaverous head of the Baptist. A young boy holds a torch in his right hand, though his child-like curiosity soon turns to adult horror and his left hand releases the camel haired mantle of the Baptist. The illuminated face of the executioner betrays a flash of teeth, as though a maniacal grin of pride at his work, his torso, rendered so wonderfully, a study in taught tanned skin and musculature, demonstrating the very physical action of holding aloft a severed head and thus engendering the very real emotional response Baroque artists sought to invoke.
John’s head meanwhile still seems to possess the capacity to surprise; the eyelids are not quite sealed, the lips parting as if he were about to utter one last damming prophesy. This potential horror does not, however, appear to affect the two female figures, Herodias and Salome. Herodias’ wizened face demonstrates a Dutch mastery for the wrinkled and weather-beaten visage, but her gaze evidences only a quizzical sense of seeking certainty, ‘is he really dead?’, ‘did he execute the right one?’ In contrast Salome offers us only a statuesque coldness, adorned with pearls and wrapped in sumptuous silks Stom perhaps suggest a young woman who was not so naïve as to consent to her mother’s demands without appreciating the consequences. Is Salome, healthily pink cheeked after her dancing, perhaps considering, ‘is this what death looks like?’
Hanging alongside Stom’s masterpiece is William Dobson’s The Executioner with the Head of John the Baptist (1640-46). Completed towards the end of his career, this is a direct copy which has didactic merit, if only limited artistic merit. It perhaps reflects English art’s mannered, polite approach, to European influences during the period, and into later centuries. Its sketch-like approach and more muted tones greatly lessen the drama, horror and indeed whole point of Stom’s Baroque mastery. For example, Dobson’s use of white to accentuate faces, in lieu of light, only seems to deaden the scene further. Perhaps only the very dead Baptist’s head evidences a sense of Biblical verisimilitude, reflecting more the man who lived in the wilderness and sustained himself on a diet of locusts and wild honey.
One might forgive Dobson for such a cautious approach, given the political sensibilities and dangers of that age, but one cannot help but feel that in displaying both works together one is led to the conclusion that this is a very poor copy of a truly brilliant original.
Baroque Art From Rome to England is on display at Walker Art Gallery until 16 June, 2019.
Ed Montana-Williams is an Art and Architectural Historian based in Liverpool.