Andrea Solario and his workshop treated the theme of Salome with the head of John the Baptist on several occasions. Sheltered in a private collection and unseen by scholars for more than half a century, the present work is a variant of Solario’s autograph painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. 898). The image relates to two passages from the New Testament (Matthew 14: 1-12 and Mark 6: 14-29), in which King Herod, moved by Salome’s seductive dance, swears to grant his step-daughter anything she desires. Following the advice of her vengeful mother, Herodias, Salome requests that the king present her with the severed head of the imprisoned John the Baptist on a silver platter. Bound by his oath, Herod promptly sends a guard to decapitate the prophet.
Solario’s painting depicts an apocryphal scene: the moment when the executioner places the Baptist’s head onto a charger proffered by Salome. Dressed in a pearl and gem-studded gown, the alluring young woman stands at the end of a draped table. The silver and bronze vessel she holds is proof of the increasingly sophisticated approach to still-life painting in Milan in this period, as attested to by the refined treatment of the object’s reflective surface. As the executioner thrusts the Baptist’s head into the center of the composition, rivulets of blood drip obliquely into the charger, thereby drawing attention to the vigorous energy with which the executioner delivers Salome’s reward. Brown (op. cit., p. 165) suggests that this imagery is of Northern origin, having been first developed by Rogier van der Weyden in the Altar of St. John, now in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin (1455-1460).
The figures’ proximity to the picture plane heightens the scene’s tension and sense of immediacy, both hallmarks of Solario’s work. Many of the compositional devices employed in this panel are derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, such as his Study for Christ Carrying the Cross (Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice). In particular, Solario appropriates Leonardo’s motif of a cropped arm reaching into the pictorial space to grasp a lock of Christ’s hair. The younger artist also adopts the master’s use of chiaroscuro and sfumato to create a mysterious atmosphere and amplify the quiet drama of this moment. Solario’s figures, too, owe much to Leonardo. The juxtaposition of the alluring Salome with the ashen face of Saint John the Baptist and the darker, menacing executioner is a prime example of the Leonardesque theme of bello/brutto (beauty/ugliness). As a private devotional image, the painting’s combination of serenity and gruesomeness, introspection and action, as well as light and shadow would have been effective in stimulating the eye and fostering a contemplative mood.
According to an old plaque on the frame, this painting was formerly in the Royal Gallery at Turin, where “it was taken by the French in that capital”. The version of Salome with the head of Saint John the Baptist by Solario that is currently in the Galleria Sabauda (inv. no. 672) only entered the collection in 1928, so the plaque certainly does not refer to that painting. A link to Napoleon is plausible, as by the 19th century, the painting was part of Edward Solly’s distinguished art collection, where it was catalogued as Leonardo da Vinci. Solly had made a fortune during the Napoleonic wars from his family's enormous timber importing business based in Saint Mary Axe in London. Around 1811 he seems to have quite suddenly developed a passion for collecting art and, in the following nine years, he amassed the largest private collection of pictures formed in the 19th century, consisting of no less than 3,000 works. Having fallen into financial difficulties, Solly offered the collection to the Prussian state, which purchased it in 1821. A large group of the pictures went on public display when the Royal Gallery of Berlin opened in 1830. The paintings were then transferred to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in 1904, and form the basis of the Berlin collections today. Solly subsequently formed in London a second, smaller collection consisting almost exclusively of 16th-century Italian pictures, including such works as Crivelli's Annunciation and Lorenzo Lotto's Portrait of a family, both now in the National Gallery, London.