(1 Kings 10:1-13)
Edward Poynter was both a painter and an art historian. He wanted to depict everything the way it once might have been. However, this was a difficult undertaking since no archaeological remains of Solomon’s times existed. Instead, sensational discoveries of later epochs had been made by his friend Sir Austen Henry Layard, namely of Assyrian palaces in Northern Iraq. Poynter studied them minutely. Thus, for instance, the golden lions of Solomon’s lion throne were copied from a huge stone lion Layard had found in front of a temple dedicated to the Assyrian war goddess Ishtar in Nimrud in 1849. Nimrud had been the capital of the Assyrian Empire from the 9th century BC to the year of its destruction in 612 BC. Poynter also studied the Bible closely. Whatever details he found he would implement in his paintings. Thus, the ascent to Solomon’s throne is illustrated just the way the Bible has it: six steps lead up to the throne with two lions on either side of each step (see First Book of Kings, chapter 10, verses 18–20). Poynter was interested in the “historical” side of the event and had no intention to impose a Christian meaning on it. This is quite different in the next picture. You just have to turn the page, and you will see!
Fig. 1: Edward Poynter (1839–1919), The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, 1890. Oil on canvas, 234.5 x 350.5 cm. Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The Queen of Sheba Visits King Solomon When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. When the queen of Sheba had observed all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his valets, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her.
So she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard.Happy are your wives! Happy are these your servants, who continually attend you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.” Then she gave the king one hundred twenty talents* of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. Meanwhile King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, as well as what he gave her out of Solomon’s royal bounty. Then she returned to her own land, with her servants.
Here you can see quite a different depiction of the visit of the Queen of Sheba! Does it not remind you right away of a narrative related to the nativity story? It is the Three Holy Kings visiting the newborn infant Jesus! However, what do these two stories have in common? The Three Holy Kings were guided to the manger in Bethlehem by a mysterious star to honor the “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) and give him presents. The Queen of Sheba also came from far away to honor a great king and give him presents. She, too, followed a star she had seen, a deep longing to solve all the riddles of the world. She heard how the God she does not know had given unsurpassable wisdom and wealth to King Solomon. She is curious about Solomon, curious about this God so abundant in his love and giving. Nicholas of Verdun knew both stories, of course. For after all he created the magnificent Shrine of the Three Holy Kings of which I showed you a detail some pages ago (p. 309). Thus, it is no coincidence that we see a dark-skinned Queen of Sheba (in medieval times, she was thought to be African) with exactly two servants standing before Solomon. In major works of art, everything is well planned, you can be sure about that. Here, one story is to remind us of the other. When seeing Solomon, we are supposed to see the coming of Christ. Before your eyes, the Queen of Sheba and her two servants will then suddenly transform into the Three Holy Kings…
Fig. 2: Nicholas of Verdun (ca. 1130–1205), The Verdun Altar: The Queen of Sheba, finished ca. 1181. Enamel on gilded copper, ca. 30 cm. x 21 cm. Klosterneuburg (Austria), Abbey.
The kingdom of the Queen of Sheba might have been Yemen, the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. However, the Bible does not tell us a lot about this fairytale “queen of the South” (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Literary reception has thoroughly made good on that. One legend in particular has been retold again and again in many variations: Queen and King fall in love, marry and have a son. In Ethiopia, this tradition was especially alive and meaningful for national and religious identity. Thus, the Queen of Sheba was long held to be the ancestress of the royal dynasty and Solomon its ancestor. All of the members of the crown supposedly descended from their son Menelik who travelled to Africa.
Fig. 1: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a9/Sir_Edward_John_Poynter_-The_visit_of_the_Queen_of_Sheba_to_King_Solomon-_Google_Art_ProjectFXD.jpg
Fig. 2: akg-images / Erich Lessing
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.