The Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, c. 1470–1473
Tempera and gold leaf on wood
Panel: 36 3/8 in. diameter (92.3 cm) Frame: 36 7/16 diameter × 2 1/2 in. (92.6 × 6.4 cm)
The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Learning from Leonardo
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Research the life of Leonardo da Vinci and his accomplishments as a scientist.
• Record observations using words and drawings.
• Keep a notebook of sketches to document a science project.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This painting sets the Old Testament story of the meeting of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in an imaginary palace based on Italian Renaissance architecture. Members of the king’s court and servants talk among themselves in and around the ornate Renaissance buildings. A court jester, dogs, and monkeys are present. At the center of the scene, beneath a canopy and behind the king and queen, is a chalice on an altar.
According to the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba heard of King Solomon’s wisdom and the magnificence of his court and visited Jerusalem to verify these reports. She brought gifts of spices, gold, and precious stones. Upon seeing his glorious court and testing the king’s wisdom with many riddles, the queen returned to her land. However, popular legends grew around the biblical story – one telling of the marriage of these two rulers.
The complex architecture of Solomon’s temple is a masterful demonstration of Renaissance one-point or linear perspective. The parallel lines of the marble floor, the pink banisters, and the ceiling tiles all converge at the chalice, drawing the eye from the foreground to the background of the painting. The composition is symmetrical, with architectural elements and arrangements of figures balanced to the left and right. The brilliant colors, the gold surfaces, the strictly outlined figures, and the careful attention to naturalistic details contribute to the rich, luxurious style of this painting. This style followed the court taste of the ruling family of Ferrara in the fifteenth century.
The artist used egg tempera paints on a wooden panel to create this picture. The wood was smoothed and sealed with a layer of gesso, a gypsum and glue paste combination. The composition was probably sketched onto the gesso before painting began. To make paints, the artist mixed ground pigments from plants and minerals with egg yolk. Egg yolk dries very quickly, so the artist applied his colors in small, carefully blended brushstrokes. The gold highlights are actually thin pieces of gold leaf applied to the painting. The designs in the gold halos and fabrics were created with a punch, a tool used to incise the gold leaf designs.
Some round panels, or tondos, originally served as ceremonial serving trays commissioned to commemorate a birth or marriage. The practice of giving such paintings as gifts was common in the humanist courts of Italy during the 15th century. This tray in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s collection is so lavish that it is unlikely it was used more than once or twice at the time of childbirth before being hung on the wall.
Located in the lowlands just south of the Po River in northern Italy, Ferrara was ruled by the Este family from about 1250 to 1598. During the Renaissance, this noble family brought many foreign artists to paint at their magnificent court. The Este court was an important center of art, literature, and learning during the Renaissance.
The Italian Renaissance emerged gradually during the 14th century and flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries. The term Renaissance means “rebirth,” referring to the revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture. As artists looked to these civilizations for inspiration, they began to shed the stylized conventions of medieval art in favor of greater realism. The innovation of linear and other forms of perspective created a style of painting that defined Western art until the beginning of the 20th century.
Create a visual inventory of all you see.
Notice the shape of the work of art. How does the shape augment your view?
Describe the colors and textures of various subjects in the painting: clothing, buildings, objects, etc.
Observe the man and woman in the center. How does the artist portray them using elements of dress, position, and posture? How might those elements be used to describe all of the individuals?
How does color choice and the application of gold leaf add to the style of this painting? What words would you use to describe its style?
Describe aspects of architecture shown.How does the artist use line to form architectural elements?
How do certain elements, such as curved archways or vertical pillars, contribute to a sense of unity in the work of art? Explain, using evidence from the painting.
Think of the work of art as having a vertical and horizontal plane; compare opposite sides within each plane. Do the arrangements of certain objects and art elements on one side correspond to the arrangements on the other side? How? Using math vocabulary, how would you describe this arrangement to a mathematician?
Follow lines in the canopy ceiling, pink banisters, and the marbled floor. Discuss how they draw your eye to a certain area of the painting.Where do they lead your eye? Describe what you notice at that point.
Compare and contrast the differences between the figures in the foreground with the figures in the background. Elaborate using color, size, and details.
How does the artist create this 2 dimensional scene so it appears 3-dimensional and realistic?Assess what areas are drawn using strategies such as one-point perspective.
An artist that was very concerned with realistic depictions of nature was Leonardo de Vinci. If possible, display some of his sketches and compare his style to the works of art.
This painting portrays the Christian Old Testament story of the meeting of Israel’s King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba . She had heard of King Solomon’s wisdom and the magnificence of his court and visited Jerusalem to verify these reports.Hypothesize what could be the topics of conversation between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. What could their servants/members of the court be discussing?
Imagine you were in this scene.Where would you be and what might you be thinking/doing. Explain.
This painting’s setting is in an imaginary palace based on Renaissance architecture.What aspects of this work of art reflect the Renaissance, rather than the time period and place in which these royal figures actually lived (900 BCE)?
If the art work could be adapted to accurately represent 900 BCE, what would change?
The style of this 15th century piece follows the court taste of Ferrara’s ruling family, the Este’s. Infer the qualities that would define their taste. Support with evidence from the painting.
This round panel, called a tondo, served as a ceremonial serving tray to commemorate births or marriages. Do you think it was used often?Why or why not?
Does the shape compliment the scene and the way it is painted? Explain.
Egg tempera paint and gold leaf were used to paint this scene on wood.Since egg yolk dries so quickly, how do you think the artist applied the paint?What do you hypothesize about the skill level of the artist and the time it took to complete this?
How does the addition of gold leaf affect your opinion of the value of this tondo?
Research and compare this tondo with other paintings in the MFAH that involve King Solomon (one example is Matthias Stom’s The Judgment of Solomon, found on the MFAH website at https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/959)
• Research the life of Leonardo da Vinci and his accomplishments as a scientist. Find examples of his drawings of people, animals, and nature. Discuss records of his ideas and observations.
• Discuss why it is important for scientists and artists to record observations and experiment with new ideas.
• Select a science lesson or experiment in which students can develop observation skills. Have each student keep a notebook of sketches and words to document the project.
• Compare the sketched observations with the written notes. What are the advantages of each?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.