This painting picks up the iconography of the famous watercolour of the same title (Musée du Louvre, Department of Graphic Arts, Musée d’Orsay Collection), which inspired J-K Huysmans to write some wonderful passages in his novel A Rebours. It illustrates an episode taken from Chapter XIV of St Matthew’s Gospel. John the Baptist had been imprisoned for having condemned the illegitimate marriage between Herodias and King Herod. Wishing to get rid of this troublesome person, the queen asked her daughter Salome, when she had finished dancing for the king, to ask for the head of John the Baptist as her reward.
This short episode gave rise to many works focusing on the figure of Salome, who did not, however, instigate the crime. But this Jewish princess would excite the imagination of painters to become the archetypal femme fatale. Gustave Moreau thus was part of a tradition that he would then subvert by inventing this fantastic apparition of the head of John the Baptist surrounded by a halo, dripping with blood in front of a horrified Salome.
In this painting, we can see: on the left, Herod, hieratic on his throne next to his wife; on the right, the impassive executioner, sword in hand; in the dark background a series of lines describe figures of pagan divinities blending into a strange and disturbing architectural setting, decorated with medieval motifs. This rich ornamental decor, typical of the painter’s style, taken from the most distant centuries and civilisations, make this scene difficult to place in time and space, and adds to its enigmatic character. Gustave Moreau transforms this biblical episode into a fable, a painted poem in which the theme is meant to be edifying as well as a pretext for a dream.