The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

As part of the Birmingham Book Festival (around the city, 6-16 October 2011), the Barber Institute of Art and my department have teamed up to produce some literary-inflected podcasts for some of the works in their collections. Here is mine, on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s ‘The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist’:

More used to being looked at, Salome here gazes on the figure of John the Baptist, having secured the right to his head. For Oscar Wilde, Salome was a figure of desire who dared to desire in her own right. Here, she is in the background, fully-clothed, and showing no signs of the energetic (and erotic) performance that she has just given for her stepfather. Instead of Salome, our gaze is drawn to St John who, radiant with devotion, kneels naked to the waist with his palms open, waiting for the blow that will send him to heaven. A figure of stillness, a fragile masculinity, he is contrasted with the dynamic executioner, muscles rippling as he performs his grim task. These two figures dominate the composition, but it is Salome’s partially-hidden red gown, the colour of blood and wine, that tells both of the coming of Christ and the violence about to unfold.