Feast of Herod

oil on panel
123,5 x 73,5 cm
León, c. 1500

Provenance: France, private collection.

Literature: Ballesté 2017, vol. I, pp. 107-108 y vol. II, fig. 250; Ballesté 2019, p. 255.



The work before us here is an altarpiece compartment depicting one of the more popular episodes from the St. John the Baptist cycle, that of the Feast of Herod. Salome is the star attraction, featuring in the middle, elegantly dressed and dancing with a tambourine in her hand while a dog at her feet appears to be barking. Going against tradition, she is not carrying the platter with the delicacy with which she hopes to regale King Herod, John the Baptist’s head. It appears the macabre dish is being brought by a servant in multicoloured breeches, although we can’t be sure from the tray he is carrying. The monarch is pictured sat at the head of a table prepared for the banquet, accompanied by three servants. All of these boast luxurious robes and gold cloaks decorated with brocade executed using the estofado technique. Two windows face outwards, where the sky has been replaced by a gold background with latticework motifs. The room is covered by a period coffered wooden ceiling. To the right of the composition, in an adjoining room, we can make out a folding table with a display dinner service. The composition is unusual in its deepness, generated through a paved floor with colours and geometric shapes. We look in onto the scene through a segmental arch that serves to frame the composition.

Along with the Baptism of Christ, the Feast of Herod is one of the most popular episodes from the St. John the Baptist cycle. His martyrdom and death are documented in the Gospels of Matthew (14: 3-12) and Mark (6: 14-29), as well as by Flavius Josephusin his Antiquities of the Jews (Ant. 18: 117-119), Pedro Comestor in his Historia Scholastica and, naturally, Jacobus da Varagine in the Golden Legend, and others. The painter has been generically faithful to his sources, depicting a festive scene, as the texts mention that John the Baptist’s beheading and the dance of Salome took place during Herod’s birthday party. The Gospel of Mark (6: 21) mentions that the king’s high officials were in attendance, who we must identify with the male figures sat at the table with the monarch. Both gospels refer to Salome’s dance which captivated everybody, and which we can clearly see here in the tambourine and position of the figure. We need hardly mention that dancing and music were typical elements in a festive setting, so the scene is a reliable reflection of what such events must have looked like in the Middle Ages. Saying that, dancing also had negative connotations in certain circles. As such, the focus is on Salome, drawing attention to her negative character, as she was associated with prostitutes and dancers in the Middle Ages[1].

The Master of St. John the Baptist is a laboratory character created recently on the basis of three altarpiece compartments dedicated to the saint in question, one of which is the work we are dealing with here. The other two known works, undoubtedly from the same altarpiece as our panel, are a Beheading of St. John the Baptist preserved at the Art Institute in Chicago and a Sermon of St. John the Baptist from the old Pardo collection (Paris), whose location is currently unknown[2]. The link between the two panels was made by Berg-Sobré in 2008[3]. Ballesté recently added the work we are studying to the group, also creating an identity for the painter[4].

It is certainly true the three panels share many stylistic similarities, with expressive faces and extremely unusual facial features, with small eyes and prominent brows and chins, which help us to create a characteristic artist profile. The anatomic style of the figures is also analogous, with extremely similar clothing and wide-brimmed headdresses in all cases. The figure who appears on the extreme right of the banquet table in our panel is particularly significant, being faithfully reproduced in the Chicago work. We should also mention the type of gilt work in the background, with the same punch-marked geometric lattice effect, as well as the common dimensions of the three works (Sermon: 116 x 70 cm; Beheading: 109 x 73.7 cm).

This is a painter who executes elegantly dressed monumental figures, with prominent heads and unrefined and expressive faces. His style is eminently Late Gothic, although his painting presents certain superficial Renaissance features at surface level. One such is the desire to frame his figures in realistic contexts, although neither perspective nor architecture are successful in doing so. And yet the pilasters, arches and cornices speak of a fairly clear attempt to depict architecture of a Classical style, in line with the emergence of works arriving in Castile from Italy in around 1500.




[1] For more on these matters, see Velasco 2012b, pp. 114-115.

[2] On the Chicago panel, see Post 1947, p. 797, fig. 332; Berg-Sobré 2008. With regard to the saint’s sermon, see Gaya 1958, p. 263, cat. 2101. A photograph of the latter is preserved in the Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic in Barcelona, cliché RM 1964 (tome 52).

[3] Berg-Sobré 2008, pp. 91-92.

[4] Ballesté 2017, vol. I, pp. 105-108 and Ballesté 2019, p. 255.