King David was a central figure in Jewish consciousness: he was anointed by God’s hand through Samuel, as the Dura Europos painting illustrates; and he was the founder of a dynasty that would in the future produce an ideal anointed one, mashiach, the Messiah. Christians asserted that God’s action and promise had been fulfilled in Jesus, whom they called ‘Christ’, the Greek translation of ‘anointed’. Hence for them David’s anointing was typological: an Old Testament prefiguration of a later perfect fulfilment.
Our three artistic examples present the same scene, but with different styles and emphases. Common to all is the notion of anointing as a sign of election by God. In the Greek and Middle Eastern world anointing with oil (sometimes perfumed) had many contexts: anointing for athletics or for war; for healing; for enjoyment. It was a symbol of gladness (see Psalm 23:5; 45:7) and strength; it was a sign of hospitality (see Luke 7:46). It was also used in religious rituals of the consecration of kings and of priests. Moreover, the idea of anointing was used metaphorically for the reception of God’s spirit by the prophets (Isaiah 61:1). Hence Jesus applies the notion to himself (Luke 4:16–21) and Christians associated his anointing with his baptism (Matthew 3:16–17). In the same way, St Paul speaks of all Christians as anointed by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21–22).
Given these many wide-ranging meanings, we can understand the importance of the anointing of David by God’s representative, Samuel. In the Dura wall painting, this scene stands among other instances of God’s action in history for God’s people, Israel: Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the story of Moses and the Exodus, the vision of Ezekiel, the capture of the ark of the covenant, etc. The figures are stylized and formal, in the then-current Greco-Roman fashion; the painting is possibly modelled on illuminations of the Septuagint. It is significant that God’s election is presented uniquely in the anointing by Samuel, although the Scriptures mention two further anointings of David as King—over Judah (2 Samuel 2:4) and over all of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).
The Paris Psalter illustrations emphasize the continuity of God’s action into the contemporary situation, through the divinely appointed Byzantine emperor. What was true when the original narrative was written down is true again here: Scripture lends itself to the legitimation of political authority. The Psalter illustrations complement Samuel’s anointing with pictures of David’s later royal accession. In one painting he is lifted by soldiers on a shield—a part of the Byzantine coronation ceremony—as a female figure floating in the air holds a crown over his head. In another, he is flanked by personifications of Wisdom and Prophecy; he wears a chlamys in the Byzantine style, like that of Justinian in the famous mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna; he carries a book, and gives a blessing in the sacerdotal manner, with his fingers arranged to form the Greek letters ICXC, the abbreviation of ‘Jesus Christ’. Above his head flies the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove—an allusion to Jesus’s ‘anointing’ by God at his baptism. The style of the Psalter illuminations is symbolic realism, in which the narrative takes precedence over visual coherence. The inclusion of labels within the paintings reinforces this emphasis.
The painting by Raphael also places the anointing in the context of the whole of sacred history and of major moments in David’s life. The emphasis here is on how the entirety of that sacred history, as recorded in the Old Testament, leads to fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus was thought to be of the ‘house of David’ by descent; he was also ‘son of David’ by virtue of his anointing by God. He is the Messianic king in a transferred sense: his kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36); he reigns from the cross (Mark 15:2); he is ‘enthroned’ by his resurrection (Ephesians 1:19–23; Hebrews 1:5; Romans 1:4). Raphael’s inclusion of the sacrifice of a lamb in the anointing scene points forward to Jesus’s sacrifice, symbolically present in the final painting of the series, the Last Supper.
Raphael’s painting exemplifies a radical shift in art. Christian religious art prior to the Renaissance was above all symbolic and spiritual. It was meant to communicate knowledge and induce a sense of the spiritual presence of what it represented. Renaissance art reintroduced the classical idea of ‘imitation of nature’ (Seneca, Letter LXV). Painting communicates what the eye can see, while striving for beauty. The anointing of David conveys sacredness through dramatic narrative, elegance of form, and context.
Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 11b; 12a; Jerusalem Talmud, Horayot 3.4, 47c
Belting, Hans. 1994. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Viladesau, Richard. 2009. “Art: Anointing” in The Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception, ed. by Constance M. Furey et al (Berlin: De Gruyter)
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me him whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons, and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliʹab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinʹadab, and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he comes here.” 12And he sent, and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.