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 ’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.