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:
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
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,
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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: