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).
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]
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.