In the Bible, David is a shepherd, a musician, a poet, a warrior, a desperado, a king – a husband, a lover, a father and finally an invalid. In post-biblical literature, both Jewish and Christian, David is spiritualized and idealized, because his descendant is the Messiah. And in art, he becomes a stud, a knight in shining armor, a divinely inspired greybeard monarch, a venerable saint.
David as a Lad, as a Musician, as Orpheus
Both the beginning and the climax of the Davidic presence are to be found in the earliest expression of Jewish art, the third century Dura Europos synagogue. In a central panel of the western wall, David is chosen over his older brothers and anointed future king of Israel by Samuel.
Dura Europos, Samuel anoints David, 244
In the reredos (screen) above the Torah niche, David appears as the messianic "prince of peace" and as the messianic king, enthroned above his people.
Dura Europos, 244
(enhanced black and white and color photograph)
David enthroned (above) David as Orpheus (below)
Elsewhere in Dura, at least three additional episodes from David's life confirm his overwhelming importance for this diaspora Jewish community of Talmudic times; for David was the symbol of their hopes for restoration and salvation.
Many figures in early Jewish and Christian art evolve from prior Hellenistic images. Thus, in the screen above the Torah niche David appears as Orpheus the divine Hellenistic musician, enchanting the animals. Why Orpheus? Charisma, music and poetry unify the two figures. David is first introduced to us as Saul's music therapist, brought to calm his spirits. David is the "sweet singer of Israel" (II Samuel 23:1), traditionally the author of Psalms. Finally, a passage in Isaiah 11 endows David's messianic descendant with the ability to end all violence:
(ו) וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃
(6) The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,The leopard lie down with the kid;The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together,With a little boy to herd them.
All these biblical images coincide with the character and feats of Orpheus.
This use of the orphic model is found throughout the history of art, but undergoes significant changes in accordance with the spirit of the ages. In the 6th century mosaic floor of a synagogue in Gaza, David is crowned and haloed like a Byzantine divine emperor. By contrast, in Emil Nolde's expressionist woodcut of 1919, we can hardly see David, seated in the shadow behind Saul. Only his strong left hand is visible, plucking the lyre, parallel to Saul's weak left hand, desperately gripping his spear. The center of the woodcut is dominated by the stooped figure of Saul, who once stood "head and shoulders above all Israel." He looks in our direction, his face sunken into his chest and his mouth downturned into his pointed beard, but he sees only his own tragedy.
Gaza Synagogue, Emil Nolde, David and Saul,
David as Orpheus, 6th century 1911
David and Goliath
An alternate biblical tradition regarding David's introduction into Saul's court is found in the story of David and Goliath.
Moshe Shah Mizrahi, Michelangelo, David,
The Fall of Goliath, early 20th century 1504
In Michelangelo's idealized sculpture, the young David pauses, a stone in his right hand, sling in his left. But Michelangelo exaggerates David's heroism and beauty, by stripping him not only of armor as in the biblical account, but of all clothing (making him into a nude, Greek athlete) and by hiding both the stone and the sling; he is going to fight Goliath with nothing but his own skill.
In contrast, the central figure in Moshe Mizrahi's picture is the decapitated giant, Goliath. Coming 400 years later out of the oppressed Jewish community of Turkish Palestine, the enemy is dressed as mustachioed Turkish soldiers. Next in importance is Saul, standing stiffly among his troops in the upper register. Tiny David, a third the size of Goliath's sword, is hardly visible, impaling the giant's head, whose copper helmet looks like an overturned basket. Thus Mizrahi is expressing his faith in God's support of the weak over the strong.
David and Saul's Children
According to the biblical narrative, David's meteoric rise in rank and in popularity parallels Saul's growing paranoia and loss of confidence. After the victory over Goliath, David enters the household of Saul, via marriage to Michal, Saul's daughter, and through a profound friendship with Jonathan, Saul's son. Both of these relationships threaten Saul's equilibrium and his hold on the new kingdom.
In I Samuel 19, Saul orders David's liquidation, which is thwarted by Michal. Chagall, showing David in active flight (rather than being lowered on a rope, as in other renditions) relates carefully to the three verbs in verse 12,
(יב) וַתֹּ֧רֶד מִיכַ֛ל אֶת־דָּוִ֖ד בְּעַ֣ד הַחַלּ֑וֹן וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ וַיִּבְרַ֖ח וַיִּמָּלֵֽט׃
(12) Michal let David down from the window and he escaped and fled.
David's voluptuous bride Michal is framed in the window, a connection to which we will return below.
In the following episode, David escapes Saul once again, this time with Jonathan's help. During their moving farewell, Jonathan implores David to spare the life of his family, once he becomes King.
(יא) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוֹנָתָן֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד לְכָ֖ה וְנֵצֵ֣א הַשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיֵּצְא֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃ {ס} (יב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוֹנָתָ֜ן אֶל־דָּוִ֗ד יְהֹוָ֞ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ כִּֽי־אֶחְקֹ֣ר אֶת־אָבִ֗י כָּעֵ֤ת ׀ מָחָר֙ הַשְּׁלִשִׁ֔ית וְהִנֵּה־ט֖וֹב אֶל־דָּוִ֑ד וְלֹא־אָז֙ אֶשְׁלַ֣ח אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְגָלִ֖יתִי אֶת־אׇזְנֶֽךָ׃ (יג) כֹּה־יַעֲשֶׂה֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה לִיהוֹנָתָ֜ן וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֗יף כִּֽי־יֵיטִ֨ב אֶל־אָבִ֤י אֶת־הָרָעָה֙ עָלֶ֔יךָ וְגָלִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־אׇזְנֶ֔ךָ וְשִׁלַּחְתִּ֖יךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ֣ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וִיהִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הָיָ֖ה עִם־אָבִֽי׃ (יד) וְלֹ֖א אִם־עוֹדֶ֣נִּי חָ֑י וְלֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֧ה עִמָּדִ֛י חֶ֥סֶד יְהֹוָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א אָמֽוּת׃ (טו) וְלֹֽא־תַכְרִ֧ית אֶֽת־חַסְדְּךָ֛ מֵעִ֥ם בֵּיתִ֖י עַד־עוֹלָ֑ם וְלֹ֗א בְּהַכְרִ֤ת יְהֹוָה֙ אֶת־אֹיְבֵ֣י דָוִ֔ד אִ֕ישׁ מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ (טז) וַיִּכְרֹ֥ת יְהוֹנָתָ֖ן עִם־בֵּ֣ית דָּוִ֑ד וּבִקֵּ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה מִיַּ֖ד אֹיְבֵ֥י דָוִֽד׃ (יז) וַיּ֤וֹסֶף יְהֽוֹנָתָן֙ לְהַשְׁבִּ֣יעַ אֶת־דָּוִ֔ד בְּאַהֲבָת֖וֹ אֹת֑וֹ כִּֽי־אַהֲבַ֥ת נַפְשׁ֖וֹ אֲהֵבֽוֹ׃ {ס}
(11) Jonathan said to David, “Let us go into the open”; and they both went out into the open. (12) Then Jonathan said to David, “By the LORD, the God of Israel! I will sound out my father at this time tomorrow, [or] on the third day; and if [his response] is favorable for David, I will send a message to you at once and disclose it to you. (13) But if my father intends to do you harm, may the LORD do thus to Jonathan and more if I do [not] disclose it to you and send you off to escape unharmed. May the LORD be with you, as He used to be with my father. (14) Nor shall you fail to show me the LORD’s faithfulness, while I am alive; nor, when I am dead, (15) shall you ever discontinue your faithfulness to my house—not even after the LORD has wiped out every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth. (16) Thus has Jonathan covenanted with the house of David; and may the LORD requite the enemies of David!” (17) Jonathan, out of his love for David, adjured him again, for he loved him as himself.
The bond between these figures has had many interpretations. Rembrandt's painting of 1642 generates a question of identity. Is the regal turbaned figure, comforting his abject companion, David or Jonathan? An examination of the biblical text shows that Jonathan is the older of the two; examination of the painting reveals the sheathed sword and traveling boots of the fugitive. Thus Jonathan is the comforter and David is bent over in embrace. Verse 41 describes the scene as follows:
(מא) הַנַּ֘עַר֮ בָּא֒ וְדָוִ֗ד קָ֚ם מֵאֵ֣צֶל הַנֶּ֔גֶב וַיִּפֹּ֨ל לְאַפָּ֥יו אַ֛רְצָה וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ שָׁלֹ֣שׁ פְּעָמִ֑ים וַֽיִּשְּׁק֣וּ ׀ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֗הוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ עַד־דָּוִ֖ד הִגְדִּֽיל׃ (מב) וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יְהוֹנָתָ֛ן לְדָוִ֖ד לֵ֣ךְ לְשָׁל֑וֹם אֲשֶׁר֩ נִשְׁבַּ֨עְנוּ שְׁנֵ֜ינוּ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ בְּשֵׁ֤ם יְהֹוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְהֹוָ֞ה יִהְיֶ֣ה ׀ בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֗ךָ וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעִ֛י וּבֵ֥ין זַרְעֲךָ֖ עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃ {פ}
(41) When the boy got there, David emerged from his concealment at the Negeb. He flung himself face down on the ground and bowed low three times. They kissed each other and wept together; David wept the longer. (42) Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace! For we two have sworn to each other in the name of the LORD: ‘May the LORD be [witness]between you and me, and between your offspring and mine, forever!’”
Remarkably, in all their interchanges, only Jonathan expresses his love. The ambiguity of their relationship is revealed in the convoluted verse 17, when Jonathan begs David to declare David's love for him "because of Jonathan's love for David"; but David does not respond.
How then should we account for David's excess of emotion at the farewell. The medieval commentator R. Levi ben Gershom claims that David was simply afraid for his life.
David Pursued by Saul
Having escaped from Saul's rage, David becomes a fugitive, wandering the frontiers of his native Judah, collecting a band of followers and supporting himself by his military prowess. But the King pursues him. Two parallel accounts in the book of Samuel (chapters 24 and 26) describe David's cunning reversal of check into checkmate and the further undermining of Saul's stature. In I Samuel 24, leading 3000 troops, Saul enters a cave in Ein Gedi to relieve himself; unknown to him, David and his band are trapped in the recesses of the cave. Seizing the opportunity and fully conscious of the threat to his own life, he cuts off the fringe of Saul's robe. Once the King has rejoined his troops, David calls out from a distance, feigning loyalty as he displays the torn fringe. Both men know that cutting the fringe is tantamount to an attack on the body and office of the King. Saul cries out, "Now I know that you will rule."
In a naively illuminated fourteenth century manuscript, David, carrying a tailor's shears (as if to do an alteration) casually clips Saul's cape. The King sits unaware in a privy. In contrast, David's men cringe fearfully in the upper left corner. In Rembrandt's drawing of the same moment, Saul squats in broad daylight—vulnerable, off balance and ludicrous—as David quickly steals out of the cave and cuts his robe. A soldier stands guard around the corner, oblivious to the King's peril. The illumination is an iconic tableau, centering on the saint David, while Rembrandt's version is both naturalistic and pathetic.
David the Chivalrous
Another episode from David's fugitive period is the story of Abigail, the wife of Nabal. After Nabal has refused to pay them for their "protection," David and his men, intending to avenge their honor, are diverted by Abigail's generous tribute.
The scene is presented by Rubens (and many other Christian artists) as an expression of David's chivalry. At the head of his armed followers, he stoops virtuously to raise Abigail, kneeling at the head of her women.
David and the Ark of the Covenant
With the death of Saul and the collapse of support for his descendants, David is recognized as King of Israel. Upon his conquest of Jerusalem, David brings the Ark of the Covenant to his new capital.
1956 1983/86
Three works of art from the fourteenth to the twentieth century focus variously on David's celebration of the ark's arrival, described in II Samuel 6. In these three interpretations, David's presence increases as the ark's presence declines.
(יג) וַיְהִ֗י כִּ֧י צָעֲד֛וּ נֹשְׂאֵ֥י אֲרוֹן־יְהֹוָ֖ה שִׁשָּׁ֣ה צְעָדִ֑ים וַיִּזְבַּ֥ח שׁ֖וֹר וּמְרִֽיא׃ (יד) וְדָוִ֛ד מְכַרְכֵּ֥ר בְּכׇל־עֹ֖ז לִפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה וְדָוִ֕ד חָג֖וּר אֵפ֥וֹד בָּֽד׃ (טו) וְדָוִד֙ וְכׇל־בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מַעֲלִ֖ים אֶת־אֲר֣וֹן יְהֹוָ֑ה בִּתְרוּעָ֖ה וּבְק֥וֹל שׁוֹפָֽר׃ (טז) וְהָיָה֙ אֲר֣וֹן יְהֹוָ֔ה בָּ֖א עִ֣יר דָּוִ֑ד וּמִיכַ֨ל בַּת־שָׁא֜וּל נִשְׁקְפָ֣ה ׀ בְּעַ֣ד הַחַלּ֗וֹן וַתֵּ֨רֶא אֶת־הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ דָּוִד֙ מְפַזֵּ֤ז וּמְכַרְכֵּר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה וַתִּ֥בֶז ל֖וֹ בְּלִבָּֽהּ׃
(13) When the bearers of the Ark of the LORD had moved forward six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. (14) David whirled with all his might before the LORD; David was girt with a linen ephod. (15) Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the LORD with shouts and with blasts of the horn. (16) As the Ark of the LORD entered the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the LORD; and she despised him for it.
The Morgan Bible, incorporates four images: on the left, the ark moves forward ceremoniously; on the right, a crowd greets the procession with music and sacrifice; in the tower, Michal gestures contemptuously; in the center, David, despite the uproar and his wild dancing before the ark, catches her scathing look.
Marc Chagall's lithograph of 1956 resembles a Simchat Torah celebration in the shtetl. David, crowned and dressed royally in white, carries his harp like a Torah. The procession of the ark, resembling a traditional synagogue Aron Kodesh, is modestly visible in the background. Michal is absent.
Schwebel envelops David in florid, ecstatic swirls against modern Jerusalem's drab main square. Neither the ark nor Michal takes part in David's rapture.
These three readings of the biblical event move from the medieval-cultic, to folk nostalgia, to the completely secular-individualistic view of David.
The Turning Point - David and Bathsheba
The protracted war against the Ammonites is the background of the story of David and Bathsheba, in II Samuel 11. Calling for all able-bodied men to be sent to the front, David remains in Jerusalem.
(ב) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ לְעֵ֣ת הָעֶ֗רֶב וַיָּ֨קׇם דָּוִ֜ד מֵעַ֤ל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ֙ וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ֙ עַל־גַּ֣ג בֵּית־הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיַּ֥רְא אִשָּׁ֛ה רֹחֶ֖צֶת מֵעַ֣ל הַגָּ֑ג וְהָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה טוֹבַ֥ת מַרְאֶ֖ה מְאֹֽד׃
(2) Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful,
This scene has elicited vigorous commentary and artwork, most of which portrays Bathsheba bathing entirely in the open. In the illumination below, from a Dutch Book of Hours, Bathsheba attended by a maid, is outrageously exposed in public.
The King, rather than being on his own rooftop, is standing at eye-level, as if he has a ticket for the show. The meaning of the picture, however, changes fundamentally once we realize that its composition alludes to the Song of Songs.
(יב) גַּ֥ן ׀ נָע֖וּל אֲחֹתִ֣י כַלָּ֑ה גַּ֥ל נָע֖וּל מַעְיָ֥ן חָתֽוּם׃
(12) A garden lockedIs my own, my bride,A fountain locked,A sealed-up spring.
In the Jewish allegorical tradition, the bride is Israel and the lover is God. Here, in Christian commentary (Augustine, Contra Faustem, xxii, 87) Bathsheba is the bride in the locked garden, in the sealed spring; but since she will eventually be the Queen Mother (of Solomon), she can become Maria Ecclesia, the Mother Church, often symbolized, as here, by a towering fountain. David, then, is the prefiguration of Jesus and Bathsheba (the Church) must purify herself before becoming one with David (Jesus).
During the Renaissance, ecclesiastic interpretations gave way to a secular, even voyeurist, reading.
Having identified the bather, David sends messengers to bring Bathsheba to the palace (II Samuel 11:4). This is the moment portrayed by Massys: Centerfold Bathsheba, accompanied by her giggling servants, raises her skirt with her left hand, while pointing with her right hand to her dog, a classic symbol of marital fidelity. Meanwhile, David's leering messenger, accompanied by his "hunting" dog, holds one hand to his heart and with the other points toward the King, waiting anxiously in the palace with his aides. The scene borders on pornography.
A different, somber view of Bathsheba during this period is represented here by the early feminist sensitivity of Artemisia Gentileschi (one of the few women artists known from the time).
David is barely visible in the distance. Bathsheba sits on her roof, surrounded by attentive ladies in waiting. Although undressed, she covers herself both from our sight and that of her peeping neighbor.
In the continuation of the narrative, pregnant, Bathsheba sends David word. David sends for Joab to send her husband, Uriah, home to Jerusalem in order to cover up David's adultery. But Uriah's refusal to enjoy his wife, forces David to send Uriah to his death by proxy at the front. David hurriedly marries Bathsheba who bears the child of their dalliance.
Enter Nathan, the King's prophet. The scene known as The Parable of the Poor Man's Lamb (II Samuel 12) is the text of the ivory relief on the cover of Charles the Bald's Psalter from the mid-9th century.
The body of Uriah divides the ivory into two scenes across its entire width. Above the victim, Nathan (right) pulls aside a curtain to expose David's sin. Bathsheba, carrying her newborn in a sling, stands behind David. A broken staff appears to descend diagonally from David's shoulder through Bathsheba's hands, terminating in a point above Uriah's head, accusing the pair of adultery and murder. Below, the parable is illustrated by the poor man (representing Uriah) hugging his one and only lamb (representing Bathsheba), while the rich man (David) views his large flock (his extensive harem). Unwilling to deplete his own flock to entertain a guest, he appropriates the poor man's lamb. Thus, David is placed directly above his symbolic alter ego at the ivory's vertical axis, forming a cross with Uriah's corpse; David is the blemished prefiguration of Jesus, while Bathsheba, who in other cases is Maria Ecclesia, is here rejected Judaism, Synagoga. This Christian interpretation on the cover of the French king's Book of Psalms derives from Psalm 51:
(א) לַמְנַצֵּ֗חַ מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃ (ב) בְּֽבוֹא־אֵ֭לָיו נָתָ֣ן הַנָּבִ֑יא כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּ֝֗א אֶל־בַּת־שָֽׁבַע׃ (ג) חׇנֵּ֣נִי אֱלֹהִ֣ים כְּחַסְדֶּ֑ךָ כְּרֹ֥ב רַ֝חֲמֶ֗יךָ מְחֵ֣ה פְשָׁעָֽי׃
(1) For the leader. A psalm of David, (2) when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had come to Bathsheba. (3) Have mercy upon me, O God,as befits Your faithfulness;in keeping with Your abundant compassion,blot out my transgressions.
In the Book of Samuel, Nathan's condemnation is unequivocal – David has sinned and will be punished. But the late biblical Book of Chronicles deletes the shameful story, and Rabbinic commentary completely exonerates David:
אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: כׇּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּוִד חָטָא אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא טוֹעֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיְהִי דָּוִד לְכׇל דְּרָכָיו מַשְׂכִּיל וַה׳ עִמּוֹ וְגוֹ׳״. אֶפְשָׁר חֵטְא בָּא לְיָדוֹ וּשְׁכִינָה עִמּוֹ?!
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who says that David sinned with Bathsheba is nothing other than mistaken, as it is stated: “And David succeeded in all his ways; and the Lord was with him” (I Samuel 18:14). Is it possible that sin came to his hand and nevertheless the Divine Presence was with him?
The whitewash of David is based on the historical situation of the oppressed Jewish people for whom David was the progenitor of the hoped for Messiah.
Christianity, for its part, acknowledges David's sin, but his individual repentance is not enough. Full redemption for humanity can only come from the perfected David, i.e. Jesus.
Dotage and Glorification
The final episode of David's life finds him a decrepit, pathetic invalid. None of his well-used wives loves him enough to take care of the old man and a national search has to be conducted to find Abishag, his bed warmer but not his lover.
The initial letter from a medieval book of hours, illuminates Abishag, unimpressed by the job description, being pressed into service. King David, abed but still crowned and haloed, looks up passively, warming his hands under the covers.
This would be a dismal end to David's saga. But he blossoms again in the books of the prophets, as the symbol of expectations for a glorious future.
Jesse Tree, 1121-61 Jesse Tree, 12th century
The Jesse Tree, a visual genealogy connecting David with Jesus, starts with David's father lying at the base of the family tree. On the left, from his loins emerge the future generations: David, Mary and Jesus. On the right, the Jesse Tree is rooted in earlier history and displays seven virtues connected with David's ideal descendant:
(ב) וְנָחָ֥ה עָלָ֖יו ר֣וּחַ יְהֹוָ֑ה ר֧וּחַ חׇכְמָ֣ה וּבִינָ֗ה ר֤וּחַ עֵצָה֙ וּגְבוּרָ֔ה ר֥וּחַ דַּ֖עַת וְיִרְאַ֥ת יְהֹוָֽה׃
(2) The spirit of GOD shall alight upon him:A spirit of wisdom and insight,A spirit of counsel and valor,A spirit of devotion and reverence for GOD.
For additional images on this subject see TALI Visual Midrash