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Herod’s Feast, with Salome: Pickering, North Yorkshire. Late C.15 (‡York)


‘...And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes that sat with him, he would not reject her...’ Mark 6:26 Herod's Feast, with Salome's dance, Pickering (96KB)

Reading from the lefthand margin, this example of the subject on the north nave wall at Pickering, shows the dark red prison-house where John the Baptist was confined for denouncing Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s widow, as unlawful.
In the foreground John himself, in his rough garment, kneels on the chequerboard patterned floor, his hands clasped in prayer and his now detached head beside him, Salome, who as usual appears several times in this painted narrative, stands beside the head, clasping to her bosom the charger or dish on which she will present the Baptist’s head. A youthful executioner in a bi-coloured tunic has his sword lowered and his right hand raised.

Pickering, Herod's Feast, detail, Salome's dance, b/w (39KB)Beyond this, moving right, is the long trestle table at which Herod sits with his guests - in fact only two people, one man and one woman wearing the tall hennin or steeple headdress. These two appear twice, as do Herod and his wife Herodias, both regally arrayed in crowns and lavish ermine collars. Salome herself appears a second time on the nearside of the table, presenting John’s head on the charger to Herod, who reaches towards it with his left hand, his right raised in shock, genuine or feigned. Herodias raises her hand to her bosom. Beyond to the right, the male and female guests appear again, then Herodias a second time, and finally Herod himself at the far end of the table, identifiable by the inscription Herodi above his head.

In front of the table, moving back in time, the story goes on. John, intact, stands with right hand raised and index finger extended to signify speech, while to the right of him, Salome performs her dance. She is very hard to see, given the heavily patterned floor, her apparently recumbent position on it, and her complicated gown with patterned (probably more ermine) bodice, contrasting red sleeves and horizontally banded skirt. The black and white detail at the right, with salient details outlined, should help. This writhing display is perhaps the most sexually explicit performance of any of Salome’s dances remaining on an English church wall. The Herod-Herodias-Baptist-Salome nexus creates, arguably, the most erotically charged incident in the Gospels, and artists of all kinds have always responded to it as such, as in Quentin Massys’ Lamentation Altarpiece. In the (zoomable) Massys panel, the ecstatic, sated faces of Herodias and Salome, the fallen-silent musicians in the gallery, the terrified little dog, are all eloquent testimony to its power.

At Pickering, a young page is beyond Salome, kneeling to serve his lord at table in conformity with standard practice in the medieval houses of the great. He too is outlined in the black-and-white photograph above, as he lifts the cover of an elaborate wine cup. There is significant symbolism here, I think - a foreshadowing of the fact that John’s decapitation is about to take place - his own lid will be off imminently. The painter was clearly determined to ensure that people in the church did not miss this detail, while at the same time creating a faithfully naturalistic account of a royal feast.

‘...For his oath’s sake, and for their sakes that sat with him, he would not reject her...’ No medieval king would dare break a publicly-sworn oath.² And in the Realpolitick world of 1st century Judaea, Herod the insecure puppet desperately needed allies. Two worlds, and two world-views, come together with brilliant economy in this remarkable painting. The Pickering artist may well have been, in modern terms, functionally illiterate, but he knew how to express psychological complexity in paint.

There are still a few more paintings to come from Pickering, and they will be here soon. Other wall paintings of Herod’s Feast are in the table below.

¹ Massys’ Lamentation Altarpiece, painted 1508-11, is in the Musée Royal, Antwerp. Herod’s Feast is on the lefthand panel.
² Although of course some did, invariably with disastrous consequences.

St. Andrew Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read-Corby Glen, Lincolnshire St. Antony and the Pig, Barton, Cambridgeshire St. Barbara : Hessett, Suffolk St. Bartholomew : Selling, Kent St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Castor, Cambs St Catherine of Alexandria, Cold Overton, Leicestershire NEW St.Catherine of Alexandria : Hardley Street, Norfolk
St.Catherine of Alexandria : Old Weston, Northants St.Catherine of Alexandria : Pickering, N. Yorks St.Catherine of Alexandria, life of : Sporle, Norfolk St. Catherine of Alexandria, Martyrdom of: Burton Latimer, Northants NEW St. Catherine of Alexandria or another female saint : Ashley, Hampshire NEW St. Clement : South Leigh, Oxon. Scenes from the life of St. Cuthbert : Pittington, Co. Durham NEW St. Dunstan holding the Devil by the nose : Barton, Cambs
St.Edmund : Boxford, Suffolk St. Edmund : Lakenheath, Suffolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Bishopsbourne, Kent St.Edmund, Martyrdom of : Fritton, Norfolk St. Edmund (or St. Walstan) : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N.Yorks St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Troston, Suffolk
St. Edmund, Martyrdom of : Weare Giffard, Devon St.Eloi, Broughton, Bucks St. Eloi and the possessed horse, Slapton, Northants St. Eloi, as bishop & blacksmith, Wensley, N.Yorks St.Erasmus, Martyrdom of : Chippenham, Cambs St. Etheldreda : Willingham, Cambs St. Francis Preaching to the Birds : Little Kimble, Bucks St.Francis Preaching to the Birds : Wissington, Suffolk
St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Slapton, Northants St. George & Dragon : Banningham, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Broughton, Bucks St. George & Dragon : Earl Stonham, Suffolk St. George & Dragon : Fritton, Norfolk St. George & Dragon : Hornton, Oxon St. George dedicating himself to the Virgin : Astbury, Cheshire St. George, with the princess : Little Kimble, Bucks
St. George & the Dragon : Kirtlington, Oxon NEW St.Helena, Broughton, Bucks St.James the Great : Hales, Norfolk Life of St. James, Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire St. James the Great, meeting pilgrims : Wisborough Green, Sussex St. James the Great, Yelden (or Yielden), Beds NEW St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Heydon, Norfolk
St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Idsworth, Hampshire St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Old Weston, Northants St. John the Baptist, Martyrdom of : Pickering, N. Yorks Life of St. John the Baptist : Cerne Abbas, Dorset St. John the Evangelist, Selling, Kent St. John the Evangelist, Weston Longville, Norfolk St. Margaret of Antioch : Old Weston, Northants St. Margaret and the dragon : South Newington, Oxfordshire
St. Margaret of Antioch Martyred, Stoke Dry, Rutland St. Margaret of Antioch, Life of : Charlwood, Surrey Life of St. Margaret, Wendens Ambo, Essex Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Duxford, Cambridgeshire Martyrdom of St. Margaret, Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire NEW St. Martin dividing his cloak, Chalgrave, Beds St. Martin dividing his cloak, Wareham, Dorset St Michael, with kneeling donor, South Newington, Oxfordshire
St.Nicholas of Myra, life of : Little Horwood, Bucks
St. Nicholas of Myra, two miracles of : Wissington, Suffolk St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the Barrel, Padworth, Berkshire St. Nicholas of Myra & the Boys in the barrel, Bishopsbourne, Kent NEW St.Paul : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Paul : Beckley, Oxon St. Paul : Selling, Kent St. Peter : Beckley, Oxon
St.Peter : Black Bourton, Oxon St. Peter, Martyrdom of : Chacombe, Northants St. Peter : Selling, Kent SS. Peter & Paul, Old Idsworth, Hampshire NEW St. Roch : Pinvin, Worcs St. Sexburga? : Willingham, Cambs S. Stephen, Martyrdom of, North Stoke, Oxon St. Stephen, Stoning of: Black Bourton, Oxon
St. Stephen, Stoning of: Catfield, Norfolk St.Swithun (?) enthroned : Old Weston, Northants Scenes from the life of St. Swithun : Corhampton, Hampshire St. Thomas Becket, blessing, Hauxton, Cambs. Archbishop, possibly Thomas Becket, blessing, Shorthampton, Oxfordshire NEW St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, Marston Magna, Somerset St. Thomas Becket, Murder of, North Stoke, Oxfordshire St.Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Burlingham, Norfolk
St. Thomas Becket, Murder of : South Newington, Oxfordshire St. Walstan of Bawburgh? or St. Edmund : Gisleham, Norfolk St. Zita : Horley, Oxon St. Zita : Shorthampton, Oxon Unidentified female saint : Heydon

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Anne Marshall 2009