King David, from The Rothschild Miscellany by Unknown Italian Artist

Unknown Italian artist [Veneto]

King David, from The Rothschild Miscellany, c.1479, Illumination on vellum, 21 x 15.9 cm, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, MS 180.51 fol.1b, B61.09.0803o.s., Zev Radovan / Art Resource, NY

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An Orphic David

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
David Lyle Jeffrey

This is one of the most beautiful of extant medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Although works like this were infrequent in Jewish orthodoxy because of the strictures of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8), the motif of David as a kind of Orpheus, the revered musician of Greek and Roman mythology, offered a tempting opportunity to draw an analogy.

In a fourth-century fresco painting in the catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, one also finds such Orpheus images in reference to Christ. Similar but earlier images are in some instances Mithraic. In Christianity as well as in Judaism, syncretism is establishing a way of connecting a powerful pagan myth to a biblical motif, in the Christian version of which Christ, of the lineage of David, similarly evokes a restoration of Edenic fruitfulness and peace.

Overt parallels between Orpheus and the Psalmist go back to at least the third century CE. Hellenistic culture had a powerful influence on the Jewish imagination in which the singing of Orpheus was perceived as a natural anticipation of David’s sacred music. The linking of Orpheus with David in visual tradition is seen as early as the synagogue paintings at Dura-Europos (completed before 244 CE). What is more, the synagogue mosaics in Gaza dated to 508 CE closely resemble this illumination from the Rothschild Miscellany even though they are almost a millennium apart.

Here, under the framed first word of the text, ashray (‘blessed’), we see King David seated with his harp in the midst of a terrestrial paradise. The garden is watered by a pleasant stream, and it contains all manner of trees laden with ripe fruit; indeed fruit is scattered all over the ground. The Psalmist likewise is fruitful, and his music is a source of harmony and tranquillity for all the creatures of the garden, restoring Edenic health; animals both clean (the deer) and unclean (the rabbit/hare) draw close to listen (Leviticus 11:3, 6).

As by his playing of the harp Orpheus brings nature and the animals into tranquil harmony, so by his lyrics the Psalmist provides for a restoration in the human heart of original garden home and fruitful purpose.