Samuel Anoints David, wall painting from the Dura-Europos Synagogue by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Samuel Anoints David, wall painting from the Dura-Europos Synagogue, 3rd century, Wall painting, National Museum of Damascus, www.BibleLandPictures.com / Alamy Stock Photo

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God’s Saving Hand in History

Commentary by

The excavation of the synagogue at Dura Europos in 1932–33 was one of the great archaeological events of the twentieth century. The discovery of a second-century synagogue with fully painted walls depicting scenes from sacred history challenged long-held convictions about the Jewish prohibition of figurative art.

The walls of the synagogue are illuminated with a three-tiered pictorial cycle, painted in tempera, showing major moments in salvation history. A picture with the Aramaic inscription ‘Samuel anoints David’ was located prominently, immediately next to the Torah shrine. It portrays David standing with his brothers, all dressed in Roman fashion in coloured tunics and cloaks (pallia). All have the same youthful facial features and short hair. On their right is a bearded figure with stripes (claves) on his tunic, a sign of rank. Presumably this is Jesse, the father. David is dressed in a cloak of purple, the imperial colour. Several figures raise their right hands in a gesture of acclamation. A much larger figure of Samuel holds a horn and anoints David on the head. Samuel too wears attire reserved for Romans of a high status: a white tunic with purple stripes and a white pallium.

The figures are painted in the manner of contemporary Greco-Roman art. The image anticipates some of the features of Byzantine style, including isocephaly (heads at the same level) and stylized folds in the garments. All the figures are presented frontally, including Samuel, who faces the viewer rather than David. The poses are static and hieratic, the eyes stare straight ahead. The faces and clothing are all similar. No attempt is made at perspectival realism: the figures float on a uniformly coloured background.

These paintings were probably used for instruction. They illustrate the actions of God in Israel’s history. God could not be portrayed; but God’s action could. In a number of the wall images, an anthropomorphic hand of God is shown, indicating God’s activity. The stress on God’s action for Israel explains why it is Samuel, rather than David, who is given prominence in the anointing image: Samuel acts as God’s agent. The election of David is from God, as is the monarchy itself—despite God’s original anger at the Israelites’ desire to have a king (1 Samuel 8).

 

References

Gutmann, Joseph (ed.). 1971. No Graven Images. Studies in Art and the Hebrew Bible (New York: Ktav)

Milgrom, James. 1984. ‘The Dura Synagogue and Visual Midrash’, in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. by Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University), pp.29–60

‘The Synagogue at Dura Europos’, https://chayacassano.commons.gc.cuny.edu, [accessed 15 October 2019]