How the Queen of Sheba Connects the Art of Three Major Religions
Piero della Francesca, Procession of the Queen of Sheba, ca. 1252–66. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Simple and stark, the biblical tale of the Queen of Sheba has launched innumerable, sumptuous artworks. The queen first appears as a visitor to King Solomon’s Jerusalem court in the Old Testament’s Books of Kings. She brings gifts of gold, spices, and stones from her faraway land. The queen tests Solomon with difficult questions (unspecified in the text), and in his answers, she begins to appreciate Solomon’s great wisdom. She also admires the prosperity within his palace. To indicate her newfound respect for the Israelite king’s single god, the queen offers a blessing: “Blessed be Yahweh your God who has granted you his favor, setting you on the throne of Israel!” she proclaims. Solomon, in turn, gives her presents. Then she goes home to her own country.
It’s hardly the most lurid story in the Bible; no one dies, commits adultery, or suffers a plague. Yet over millennia, this unadorned narrative has undergone myriad transformations that alternately reinvent the Queen of Sheba as a converted heathen, the founder of a nation, and a magical being. Three major religious traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa have claimed her as their own in vastly different literary and artistic representations. Nevertheless, the characters of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and their narrative of cross-cultural exchange, uniquely transcend borders and beliefs.
The Queen of Sheba, who isn’t invoked by name in the original story, is known as Bilqis in the Muslim tradition (“Sheba” refers to her homeland, which scholars suggest might be in modern-day Yemen or Ethiopia). According to Nicholas Clapp’s Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen, the Egyptian storyteller Abu Mohammed ibn ‘Abd Allah al-Kisa’i generated most of the long-lasting lore about Bilqis in the 1100s, which he recorded in Qisas al-Anabiya’ (“Tales of the Prophets”).
Attributed to Ira, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba page in folio from an illustrated manuscript, early 19th century. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In her native land of Kitor, these tales relate, Bilqis lived among magical creatures, or djinns (in some versions, she’s part djinn herself). Solomon—Sulaiman, in Arabic—is the king of the djinns. During her stay in the king’s court, Bilqis tests Sulaiman with riddles, which he successfully answers. Later on, the king tricks Bilqis into baring her leg over a sheet of glass by making her believe it’s a pool of water. As Clapp tells the story, when her hairy leg is revealed, Sulaiman orders the djinns “to prepare a lotion of slaked lime and ash and so remove the troublesome hair.” Soon after, Sulaiman and Bilqis marry and bear a son named Rehoboam before Bilqis returns to Kitor.
Many scholars believe that at its core, the Sulaiman–Bilqis narrative is about conversion: Solomon converts Bilqis, a sun-worshipper, to monotheism—a core tenet of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—through his wily intelligence. The detail about Bilqis’s hairy legs portrays her as an animal—a heathen—to be subdued, feminized, and converted. “I think the underlying thing is that Solomon seemed to have tamed certain fantastic beasts.…He was a powerful force for good, and she became that, too,” Sheila Canby, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, recently told Artsy.
For centuries, Persian artisans adorned illustrated manuscripts with the tale of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The pair, according to Canby, became “protective devices” with talismanic power. When artisans rendered them on lacquerware or metalwork, they offered a sense of safety to their owners. Canby views Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as a “force for good”—“helpful people” within a broader religious context (similar, perhaps, to the Catholic conception of patron saints).
The Met owns a sumptuous, fantastical depiction of the queen that hails from modern-day Iran. The Queen of Sheba Enthroned (late 19th–early 20th century), an ink-and-watercolor painting originally part of a manuscript, features Bilqis on her throne at the center, holding what appears to be a pomegranate (a symbol of beauty), while her subjects offer her gifts. Sulaiman originally appeared on the opposite folio. Spirits fly overhead while human members of the court gaze at the central pair. Intricately decorated with bright, gilded patterns, the piece exemplifies the artistic traditions in Persia at the time of its creation, specifically a renewed interest in the school of Shiraz miniature painting style dating back to the 1570s.
In Italy in the middle of the 13th century, Jacobus de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa, centered the Queen of Sheba in a new legend that elaborates on the original Bible’s suggestion of her conversion and links Old Testament narratives to a larger Christian tradition. Early Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca famously rendered The Legend of the True Cross in a complex cycle of frescoes (1452–66) in the Cappella Maggiore di San Francesco in Arezzo.
In his depiction, Adam’s son Seth plants a twig from the Tree of Knowledge in his deceased father’s mouth. Over the generations, it grows into a tree, which Solomon tries to use to build his temple. The wood appears to shapeshift, confounding the builders so Solomon orders them to repurpose it as a footbridge across a pond instead. When the Queen of Sheba nears Jerusalem on her way to meet Solomon, she sees the bridge and has a vision of a future savior who will one day hang from it. She kneels and adores the wood, then wades into the water to avoid treading on it. The queen tells Solomon about her revelation, which foretold the end of the Jewish kingdom. He has the wood buried, though it’s eventually discovered; Jesus’s cross derives from the tree, and the cycle concludes with its exaltation by converted pagans.
Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras, the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba also served as a vehicle to depict impressive feats of architecture (a fitting use of the narrative—the Christian tale reads like a parable of difficult building projects). In his own 1545 version of their meeting, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Tintoretto placed her in the exact center of the painting. He employed a chiaroscuro effect to highlight the architecture in favor of the large cast of characters. But light radiates from the fair queen, dressed in fashionable Venetian clothing, who seems to illuminate the imagined classical buildings and harbor behind her.
French artist Claude Lorrain took a similar approach in Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648). He dwarfed his human figures with massive Palladian structures outfitted with regal columns and turrets. The sun sparkles off the sea, giving the setting a utopian aura. Solomon and the queen—wherever they may be—are clearly secondary to the fantastic scene.
The Queen of Sheba Meeting King Solomon, Ethiopia, mid-20th century. Courtesy of The Walters Art Museum.
These canvases appear less interested in religious mythology than in humanist values. With an age-old story, the artists depicted contemporary human achievements—in particular, the symmetrical, antiquity-inspired architecture that developed during the Renaissance. They both offer pristine visions of urban life governed by man-made structures.
While Canby spoke about the importance of King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba as a lucky pair in the Islamic tradition, the Ethiopian iteration of their story glorifies the latter as a key national figure. “The story of the Queen of Sheba meeting King Solomon is foundational to Ethiopian culture,” said Christine Sciacca, associate curator of European art at the Walters Art Museum (the department also includes Ethiopian art of the era). In the 14th century in Ethiopia, a collection of legends, holistically called the Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), emerged. The tome asserts that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopan ruler named Makeda.
According to the translation by Miguel F. Brooks quoted in Clapp’s book, the queen is “vigorous in strength and beautiful of form”—a good match, then, for the ingenious Solomon. In this version of the narrative, the Israelite king tricks Makeda into sleeping with him, and she becomes pregnant. Makeda returns home and gives birth to a son named Menelik, who eventually takes the throne and becomes a legendary Ethiopian emperor. Subsequent rulers—up through and including Haile Selassie, who died in 1975—viewed themselves as Menelik’s descendants and often adopted his name.
Sciacca also underscored the underlying conversion narrative in Makeda’s tale. “In the Kebra Nagast, the Queen of Sheba talks about the worship of inanimate objects in her land (the sun, rocks, wood). She says she is impressed by King Solomon’s description of the God of Israel and that she will follow God from that moment on,” she said. The Kebra Nagast also bespeaks Ethiopia’s long-standing Judeo-Christian traditions. The region was one of the first to become Christian (a scholarly debate, in fact, questions whether Armenia or Ethiopia was the very first Christian nation—there’s evidence that the latter widely adopted the religion in the late 200s and early 300s C.E.).
Frans Franken II, King Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba, ca. 1620–29. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.
Yet Sciacca also offered a feminist reading: “[Makeda] was a queen in greatness, equalling King Solomon,” she said. At its core, the tale is not about a male ruler subduing a foreign woman, but about a female ruler’s power and global influence, even if she was deceived by the king.
The Walters Art Museum owns a representative example of an Ethiopian painting that depicts the story from the mid–20th century. The piece resembles a colorful comic strip, with rows of boxes offering representations of the Kebra Nagast. One box depicts Solomon and the Queen of Sheba copulating in bed. She is clearly non-white, her skin a mocha hue one might expect from an Ethiopian ruler. Solomon’s skin tone is more salmon than white. This, too, distinguishes Ethiopian art about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba from its Middle Eastern and European counterparts. In the former, both rulers possess tawny skin, while Renaissance and Baroque depictions offer versions of the queen that are almost comically white.
Baroque painter Frans Francken II’s King Solomon Receiving the Queen of Sheba (1620–29), also in the Walters collection, features a blonde Queen of Sheba with ivory skin who kneels before Solomon. The pair reaches toward each other, hands extending above a group of vessels, probably gifts. While the material goods separate them, Solomon and the queen enact a symbolic diplomatic gesture.
“The artist’s goal in our painting is surely to create an exciting image of the electric meeting of a powerful man and a powerful—as well as very beautiful—woman who comes from afar to do him homage,” said Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum. “How does the artist convey such great beauty? Since Helen of Troy, golden blonde hair has been the default attribute of stunning beauty.” This painting, and others from its era in Europe, refuse to admit that such a captivating figure could have been non-white.
Such disparate artworks about the Queen of Sheba offer just a small glimpse of the extent to which human creativity can generate new meaning from a single myth, which can mutate and multiply to amend itself to any climate, region, and aesthetic program. The story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is about cross-cultural connection, and so is the art we make about them. Worldwide, it’s a basic human need to tell and retell our own legends—particularly those about the deceptions inherent in love (or lust or courtship) and its power to change our own beliefs—over, and over, and over again.