The Queen of Sheba and the rise of Christianity

Against a brilliant red background, a regal figure and her servant stand before the enthroned King Solomon, the famed ruler of ancient Israel. The renowned monarch gestures in recognition of the queen, who offers him a large golden cup containing a precious gift.

As recounted in the biblical book of 1 Kings (10:1-13), she is the queen of the distant land of Sheba, or Saba, as the name is rendered in other traditions. According to Christian, Jewish and Muslim interpretation, her realm lay within southern Arabia, in present-day Yemen. Within the tradition of medieval Ethiopia, however, it was located there, across the Red Sea, within Africa itself.

According to the biblical account, the appearance of the queen before Solomon was motivated by her desire to gauge the great monarch’s reputation for unsurpassed wisdom. The impressive stature of the queen of Sheba is confirmed not only by her own innate curiosity and initiative but also by the magnificence of the gifts she offered to Solomon. Besides spices and precious stones, she brought four-and-a-half tons of gold, an amount surely exaggerated but that nevertheless emphasizes the great bounty of her native land. After bestowing her benediction on the God of Israel, “she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.”

Measuring about 2 feet in diameter, this compact scene once formed part of a large stained glass window set within the choir of the Church of St. Thomas in Strasbourg, a vibrant, cosmopolitan French city strongly influenced by its proximity to the Rhine Valley region of Germany. The window contained representations of key events from the Hebrew Bible. Another window depicted stories from the life of St. Thomas. All five windows once in the choir were removed during the 1770s, not as an act of war or religious iconoclasm but to make way for the monumental tomb of a recently deceased military leader.

Part of the stunning effect of this boldly rendered scene has to do with the innovative distinction of the skin colors of the three figures. The face and hands of Solomon are drawn on the clear, or white, glass commonly used for the representation of bare skin in stained glass. The face and hands of the queen, however, are rendered in dark blue, a color often used to produce the effect of blackness in this light-activated medium. The violet shade of her servant’s curly-haired face would seem to indicate yet another ethnicity, perhaps Asian or Middle Eastern.

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