A seldom-seen Peter Paul Rubens painting is going under the hammer in January. According to Sotheby’s, “Salome Presented With the Severed Head of Saint John the Baptist” (1609) was presumed lost for over 200 years. It was discovered in 1987 and sold in 1998 for $5.5 million, beginning a 25-year stint in private collections. It was exhibited briefly at London’s National Gallery of Art in the early 2000s.
The painting was listed in the inventory of the Spanish royal family from 1666 to 1700 and was sold in Paris in 1768, but its whereabouts were unknown until a French family discovered it in their collection. Although the family had owned the work for decades, they had attributed it to a Rubens follower rather than the Old Master himself. Now, the painting is being sold because Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee and real estate mogul Mark Fisch and Rachel Davidson, a former judge, are getting divorced.
Rubens’s work follows a centuries-long tradition of painting Saint John the Baptist’s beheading at the demand of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod. Other famous portrayals of the Biblical tale include paintings by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. Some artists’ iterations depict the prophet’s head on a platter, and although gory in their own right, Rubens took his version further, with blood spurting from his neck as his head rests on a silver tray. In a particularly chilling detail, Salome gazes down at the head, apparently unaffected.
Keith Christiansen, curator emeritus at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, likened Rubens’s exploration of the violent and sexual dynamics of the New Testament story to “some pre-cinematic Martin Scorsese.”
“It’s the kind of painting that, once seen, you won’t forget,” Christiansen told the Guardian.
The upcoming sale, however, puts the painting at risk of being stashed away from the public once again. Sotheby’s placed a $25 to $35 million estimate on the work, though the artist’s “Massacre of the Innocents,” painted at the same time, sold for a record-breaking $76.7 million in 2002. Like his painting depicting Salome, that work was also thought to be lost.
According to a Sotheby’s press release, the painting will be on view at the auction house until October 27 and then again from November 4 through 13. Other notable works on view include paintings by Orazio Gentileschi, Bernardo Cavallino, Valentin de Boulogne, and Guercino.