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King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Christ himself speaks of Sheba’s journey: “The queen of the south . . . came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold a greater than Solomon here” (Matt: 12, 42). Medieval writers saw in these lines a reference to the marriage of Christ and the Church and as proof of the supersession of Christianity. The episode is not ordinarily associated with the Story of the Cross.

Sheba Adores the Wood
The second chapter of the legend begins at the left end of this tier and moves left to right. Sheba and her retinue of women and mounted grooms have come to a halt in the river-side grove. The queen has miraculously recognized as holy a heavy beam of wood, used as a bridge over the river Siloe and she kneels in veneration. Her gorgeous ladies-in-waiting exclaim at her prescience. These figures are among the most elegant and dignified in all fifteenth-century painting. Their stature, their emotional calm, and their graceful beauty have been eulogized since Piero della Francesca returned to public acclaim as a painter in the 19th century, after several centuries of being remembered primarily as a mathematician. His abiding interest in mensuration is seen here in the geometric shape of the log Sheba worships.

Meeting of Solomon and Sheba
On the right, in the great audience hall, King Solomon greets the visiting queen with a gracious hand-clasp -- a gesture often symbolic of marriage. She lowers herself to pay homage to Solomon’s superior wisdom. What is odd about this interaction is that, in the Story of the True Cross, Solomon at this point was quite angry. Having admired the tree that grew from Adam’s body, he wished to use it in building his new palace. He was denied this wish, however, because the wood miraculously kept changing size. In a rage, he had it cast out and used as a foot bridge. To make matters worse, the queen prophesied that his downfall would come through the power of a man who would hang from that log. Yet Piero’s Solomon is full of dignity in his gold cut-velvet robe, retaining his stature as a type, or forerunner, of Christ. He is surrounded by aristocratic dignitaries, all dressed in contemporary, fifteenth-century garb, including a portrait Piero included of himself wearing a dark cap. To retain strict narrative continuity, for the queen’s ladies, Piero used the same cartoon as in the previous scene, but reversed.