Salammbô and Symbolism

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Salammbô (1920), oil on canvas, 116 x 88.5 cm, Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Some of the major literary works of the nineteenth century had very unusual origins. Take Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbô, published in 1862, which is based on a contemporary Greek account of the history of Rome between 264-146 BCE, even in those days a subject unlikely to have wide appeal. Yet it was read, discussed, turned into several operas, and even appears as an extra in Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane.

The story of Salammbô is drawn, reasonably faithfully, from the first book of Polybius’ Histories, one of the most obscure sources used in a major novel of the time, and a strange choice for an author who had reached fame with Madame Bovary (1856). Flaubert may have renewed interest in Carthaginian history, but its horrific brutality sickened many readers, and it remains controversial even today.

Salammbô is set in the period following the First Punic War, which after twenty-three years of fighting between the empires of Rome and Carthage, led to Roman victory. The defeated Carthaginians faced problems with the many mercenaries who they had employed in the war, and were unable to pay or placate them, so the mercenaries attacked the city of Carthage in revenge.

Salammbô is the fictional daughter of the leading Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca, and is a priestess. The leader of the mercenaries Matho falls in love/lust with her when she tries to quell the rioting mercenaries at the opening feast in the book. The mercenaries lay siege to the city, and Matho enters it through an aqueduct. This gives him the opportunity to steal the Zaïmph, a sacred veil, and to try to break into Salammbô’s bedchamber.

There follows a series of battles between regular Carthaginian forces and the mercenaries, leading to the latter trapping the Carthaginians. Salammbô is then sent in disguise to recover the Zaïmph from Matho. When they meet in his tent, they believe one another to be apparitions, so make love. The Carthaginians then counter-attack, Salammbô returns with the Zaïmph, and the Carthaginians retreat to their city.

When the mercenaries cut the water supply off to the city, the children of its citizens are sacrificed in the hope of relieving their plight. Relief arrives, driving the mercenaries away and trapping thousands of them to die of starvation. Matho is captured, tortured, and executed by the Carthaginians, causing Salammbô to die of shock. With both Matho and Salammbô dead, the curse of the Zaïmph has been realised, in bringing death to all those who touch it.

It doesn’t appear to have been painted by a well-known artist until the last decade of the century, thirty years after the publication of Flaubert’s novel.

Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938), Salammbô and the Doves (1893), media and dimensions not known, Musée d’art et d’histoire Marcel-Dessal, Dreux, France. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Georges Rochegrosse, with his fondness for gruesome narratives and beautiful women, who first tackled a scene from the story, in his Salammbô and the Doves from 1893. Despite ample opportunities to revel in violent death and/or nudity, Rochegrosse seems to have become almost Pre-Raphaelite here, with the beautiful Salammbô reclining fully dressed on a chaise longue among a flock of white doves. I’m at a loss to explain the doves in symbolic terms, though.

Léon Bonnat (1833–1922), Rose Caron in the role of Salammbô (1896), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the nineteenth century was clearly the right time for paintings of Salammbô, for just three years after Rochegrosse, Léon Bonnat painted a portrait of the great operatic soprano Rose Caron in the role of Salammbô (1896). Bonnat seems to have been a bit slow off the mark, as Caron had first sung the title role in its premiere in Brussels in early 1890. Ernest Reyer’s opera didn’t make its way to Paris for two years, and is now very rarely performed.

Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939), Incantation (1897), colour lithographic print from ‘L’Estampe moderne’, vol. I, Paris, F. Champenois, dimensions and location not known. Image by Spiessens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Salammbô also caught the eye of the great Czech illustrator and painter Alphonse Mucha, who was working in Paris for the actress Sarah Bernhardt when he made this colour lithograph of Incantation (1897). The print above was a free gift for subscribers to a journal of prints, and that below, with its more restrained colours, is a copy signed by the artist. Either way, Mucha cast her in her role as priestess, looking up to heaven, with the city of Carthage in the background, and marvellously Art Nouveau, of course.

Alphonse Mucha (1860–1939), Incantation (1897), colour lithographic print, 37.5 x 21.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

For a while, the Carthaginian priestess seems to have vanished again, until she was revived by Gaston Bussière, a Symbolist who exhibited at Joséphin Péladan’s Salon de la Rose-Croix. Bussière had been a pupil of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and a close friend of Gustave Moreau, and worked as an illustrator on Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and several works by Flaubert.

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Salammbô (1907), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bussière’s first painting of Salammbô in 1907 also shows her as priestess, and suggests that it too may have originally been intended as a portrait of someone playing the role. She looks with piercing eyes straight at the viewer, but somehow doesn’t say much of her story.

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Salammbô (1920), oil on canvas, 116 x 88.5 cm, Musée des Ursulines, Mâcon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

When Bussière revisited Salammbô in 1920, she had undergone Salomean conversion. Now standing naked and flirtatious beside an extraordinarily erect snake, she’s still in a temple, but is now a glowing pagan goddess of seduction. This painting is in the Musée des Ursulines in Mâcon, France, which occupies the site of a former convent!

Henri Adrien Tanoux (1865–1923), Salammbô (1921), oil on canvas, 74 x 100 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of his life, a former pupil of Léon Bonnat at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Henri Adrien Tanoux, made the last painting I have to show of Salammbô, in 1921. Tanoux was no Symbolist, but a realist who, like Rochegrosse, was famous for his beautiful nudes. She’s another seductive Salome, a large red rose held to her breast, with one possible link to Flaubert’s story: the diaphanous veil which is wound from her left arm to her legs, with its unusual eye-like motifs in gold. Could that be the cursed Zaïmph?


Wikipedia on Flaubert’s novel.