The biblical episode relating the encounter of the Queen of Sheba with Solomon and the apocryphal tale of Susanna, a Jewish woman slanderously accused of adultery by two judges and saved by Daniel, have become part of the collective imagination in West and East. These two Old Testament women have been adapted in art throughout time and space to meet the changing cultural horizons of the community. Like mirrors, various periods and modes of late-Ancient and medieval Judaism, Christianity and Islam have each, in their own way, reflected the characteristics of the great Queen and the chaste Susanna.
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The biblical episode relating the encounter of the Queen of Sheba with Solomon and the apocryphal tale of Susanna, a Jewish aristocrat in exile in Babylon, slanderously accused of adultery by two notable judges and saved by the prophet Daniel, then a mere stripling (Daniel 13), have always inspired narrative and figurative art, becoming part of the collective imagination in West and East. The figures of these two Old Testament women have been adapted in time and space to meet the expectations and changing cultural horizons of the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim community to whom it is addressed. Like mirrors, various periods and modes of late-Ancient and medieval Judaism, Christianity and Islam have each, in their own way, reflected the characteristics of the great Queen and of the chaste Susanna.
The Queen of Sheba has become part of a cycle of popular legends about the magical and miraculous powers attributed to Solomon. On the one hand, she has taken on the ambiguous features of a witch or a demon; on the other, she has been transformed into a sibyl who foretells the Passion of Christ. In the case of Susanna, there lies half-hidden behind her story an ancient myth about the fall of the angels. In the Samaritan and Arab-Islamic version, as well as in Boccaccio’s reworking of the story, Susanna has been transformed into a disarmingly lovely, naive young girl, who has chosen to become an ascetic in the isolation of the desert. Reminiscences of the cycle of the Wood of the Cross, into which Christian narrators have inserted the figure of the Queen of Sheba, can also be found in an Arab-Islamic version of the tale of Susanna.
Fabrizio A. Pennacchietti holds the Chair of Semitic Philology in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Turin. The author of numerous linguistic and philological studies, he has for some time been engaged in the study of Near East comparative literature.
Cover: The Queen of Sheba, from the medieval manuscript
Bellifortis, by Conrad Kyeser, ca. 1405.