Until the nineteenth century, the great majority of narrative paintings told familiar stories. Trying to tell a previously unknown narrative in a single painting is exceedingly difficult: even William Hogarth had to rely on a sequence of half a dozen images to tell his moralising tales.
Given how familiar many in Europe were with the more popular stories from the Bible, many of those became standards in narrative painting, and formed the repertoire of visual artists until the end of the nineteenth century. One of the most challenging of those set pieces is the Old Testament story of the Judgement of Solomon. While it has only one moment which merits depiction, where there’s a coincidence of action, climax, and peripeteia, painting that readably isn’t straightforward.
In this case, telling the story clearly and faithfully requires arrangement of at least six figures so that each can be seen in their role and interactions with the others, without obscuring the emotional reactions of the two mothers, or the proposed solution of cutting the baby in half. Faces, hands and arms are all key elements in telling this story effectively.
This is drawn from the Old Testament, the first book of Kings, chapter 3.
King Solomon was known for his wisdom and sense of justice. Like many rulers, he sat in judgement over disputes, assuming the role of the ultimate court of appeal. One day, two young women, often interpreted as being prostitutes, living in the same house came to him seeking his judgement: both had recently given birth to sons, but one of the babies had died, leaving the mothers in dispute over the surviving infant.
Mother A claimed that mother B had accidentally smothered B’s own baby when she was asleep, so had taken A’s baby instead. B claimed that A’s baby had died, and the surviving baby was her own. Both mothers thus claimed the one living child as theirs.
After some thought, Solomon called for a sword, and declared that the only fair solution was to cut the live child in two, so that each mother would receive half of him. The true mother then implored Solomon to give the whole baby to the other mother if that would spare his life, but the liar called on Solomon to go ahead and divide the infant as he had proposed. From this Solomon deduced the identity of the true mother, and entrusted her with the infant.
The obvious moment to show in a painting is the threat to cut the live child in two. The preceding history can then be portrayed by showing both women and their infants, one alive and about to be divided, the other still dead. The resolution can be shown by the true mother’s reaction to try to spare the baby’s life, contrasting with the false mother’s obvious acceptance.
I consider the pictorial solutions according to the compositional arrangement: the scene viewed facing Solomon’s throne, from the side with the throne at one side of the painting, and diagonally.
Head on, throne in the centre
Raphael’s fresco of 1518-19 avoids symmetry by putting the courtier who is about to cut the live infant in two, that baby, and the true mother on the left, the dead baby in the middle in front of Solomon, and the false mother and a group of other courtiers at the right. The three key faces (Solomon, the two mothers) are shown in profile, limiting our ability to read their expressions. Raphael chose the peak moment of climax, with the sword held aloft and the real mother intervening to save her baby, her arms and hands telling much of the story.
Only slightly later, in about 1537, the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder produced a very different version on a panel. Much of the painting is taken up by the members and trappings of Solomon’s court, and the King himself is distant, appearing disengaged. This puts the mothers, their babies, and the sword-bearing courtier in the foreground, where their roles are unclear. The chosen moment is slightly earlier, before the sword has been raised ready to strike, and this means that the true mother hasn’t yet raised her protest.
Antoon Claeissens’ panel of 1605-13 is clearer, but still not a match for Raphael’s. The live baby is now held by a soldier, as another brandishes his sword in readiness. The true mother is presumably on the right, kneeling and imploring with raised arms that the baby’s life is spared. But the timing is a little premature, the reaction of the other mother ambivalent, and the true climax has been missed. He also has the same problems as Raphael with showing emotion in the mothers’ faces in profile.
Valentin de Boulogne’s painting of about 1625 is closer and more intimate, shutting extraneous objects out in the dark, including the all-important sword, which has been raised behind the main figures; although he suggests that the mother on the left is trying to prevent the baby from being cut in two, she is facing away, and both her facial expression and body language are harder to read as a result. The mother on the right clutches her chest and looks in earnest too, confounding the story.
Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting of 1649 uses similar composition to Raphael’s, with less asymmetry. Although timed slightly before the sword is raised, he depicts the body language clearly. Solomon’s hands indicate his role as the arbiter, in showing a fair balance between the two sides.
The true mother, on the left, holds her left hand up to tell the soldier to stop and spare the infant. Her right hand is extended towards the false mother, indicating that she has asked for the baby to go to her rather than die. The false mother points accusingly at the child, her expression full of hatred. Hands are also raised in the group at the right, suggesting reactions to Solomon’s judgement.
William Blake’s painting from 1799-1800 stresses its symmetry behind the two mothers, in turn laying emphasis on the asymmetry of its four main actors. The sword is brandished rather than poised to sweep down on the baby, and both mothers are reaching for the infant. This leaves their roles unresolved, but the King’s left hand is held out to stay execution, the right pointing to the mother on the left, who is presumably the true mother intervening to save the child.
Given the difficulty in seeing the mothers’ facial expressions and body language when looking towards the king on his throne, several artists tried an alternative in which the throne is put on one side, enabling the faces and arms of the main actors to be more visible to the viewer.
This panel attributed to Giorgione and dated around 1505 mirrors the composition of his Trial of Moses (c 1496-9), to which it might have been a pendant. Solomon is shown in advanced age, commanding the courtier who has raised his short sword ready. The two women straddle the midline of the panel, their body language not clear enough to indicate who is the true mother.
José de Ribera’s powerful painting of 1609-10 is more eloquent in its depiction of emotion. The courtier still has his sword in its scabbard though, and the imminent threat to the baby he holds in his left hand is concealed. The true mother stands up against Solomon, not quite touching him, her left hand reaching out to stop the sword from being drawn, the right poised over Solomon’s right hand, which is directing the courtier.
The false mother kneels, less engaged, but looking up at Solomon scornfully. A few men at the right are debating the wisdom of Solomon’s judgement already, and two mysterious faces peer from the gloom behind Solomon’s head.
In about 1630, Didier Barra lost the story completely in his exuberant and elaborate depiction of the setting. Although the actors are each apparently playing their roles well, with the soldier preparing to cut the baby in two, the mothers reacting, and Solomon directing, they seem a side-show to his architectural study.
Francisco Gutiérrez Cabello’s slightly later painting of 1650 almost falls into the same trap. Squeezed into the lower left sixth of its surface, it still manages to show the action, but working out which is the true mother is difficult. Putting both mothers and the living baby so close together also makes it harder to use their body language to tell the story.
William Dyce uses a linear arrangement more effectively. The two mothers intervene between Solomon, who is seated high on his throne at the left to direct the courtier at the right, who is brandishing his sword ready to take the baby and hack it in two. Despite the awkward angle, he gives us sufficient view of the mothers’ faces to make it clear which is which, and the true mother’s protective hold of the child confirms that.
The last alternative compositional arrangement is a compromise, taking a diagonal view.
Peter Paul Rubens’ version of about 1617 has a more complex composition with the two mothers appearing on either side of the courtier rather than the King. By putting the true mother’s back to the viewer, obscuring her face, we have to place complete reliance on our reading of her body language. We get a much better view of the false mother’s face, which is left surprisingly neutral in expression, and her body language is also not particularly helpful. In the end sufficient clues are given to enable reading of the painting, but its story could have been plainer.
In about 1690 Antonio Molinari preferred an even closer and tighter view of just the principal actors. For once the King seems detached and not in control, significantly weakening the story. Both mothers are together at the right periphery, one bent forward apparently pleading for the baby’s life, the other seemingly disinterested in events. The courtier armed with his sword takes the left, where he is put in the spotlight, ready to cut the infant in two.
Tiepolo faced a tougher task when he painted this story on this ceiling in 1726-9. The consequent limitations to reading facial expressions force him to make body language even clearer, and bear the weight of the narrative. The true mother reaches up to prevent the courtier from cutting the child in two, while the false mother sits passively watching behind the baby. That cluster of figures, both mothers, the courtier, and the baby, turns out to be both powerful and effective, although it could have been more effective by coming in closer to crop out other irrelevant detail, and heighten the viewer’s engagement.
Different artists have made various compromises in the depiction of this challenging scene. These examples illustrate how some have proved more effective than others, and the central role of body language in reading visual narrative. Compositions obscuring the body language of main actors are prone to make reading considerably more difficult, and sometimes fail altogether even in stories already familiar to the viewer.