She was considered a saint from the early days of the Church, but do we really know who she was? Art might have some answers.
One can easily miss the presence of St. Salome in the Gospels and, hence, in Christian iconographic tradition. Not to be confused with the woman of the same name who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver plate, St. Salome “the disciple” is featured in canonical writings during some key moments of Jesus’ Passion. Some early medieval traditions claim she was one of the daughters of St. Anne (calling her “Mary Salome”), making her a sister of the Virgin Mary herself. Some other traditions claim she was the mother of John the Evangelist and James the Greater, two of the Apostles of Jesus. Different women also named “Salome” appear in plenty of non-canonical writings, adding more confusion over who she really was and how was she related to Jesus.
But confusion aside, two things are sure: first, that the name Salome is the Hellenized form of a Hebrew name, most likely “Shlomit”; and second, that she was considered a saint from the early days of the Church, most likely as a result of popular devotion.
In some early Christian apocrypha, Salome is mentioned as a woman who assisted Mary during birth. For instance, in the Protevangelion of James, one reads Salome was at first skeptic when she heard the news of a virgin giving birth. But her skepticism, the text goes, was soon turned into reverence as she met Mary and the Child, realizing he was the son of God. This is the reason why Salome often appears in Orthodox icons of the Nativity, as in this 12th-century fresco from the Byzantine Dark Church of Goreme Open Air Museum, in Cappadocia, Turkey. Here, Salome appears at the right of baby Jesus, pouring water into his bath. The woman sitting on the left is the midwife.
In Western iconography, Salome is instead often depicted as being the midwife who assisted Mary during birth. In this depiction of the birth of Jesus painted inside the the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, by the great Early Renaissance master Giotto, Salome occupies the place of the midwife, sitting at the left.