2 Samuel 23:8–39; 1 Chronicles 11:10–47
David and the Three Warriors
Adoration and Belief
Commentary by Sara Kipfer
From the Late Middle Ages onwards the story of David and the three warriors was closely associated with the Queen of Sheba bringing Solomon gifts (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9) and the wise men from the East coming to see the new-born king (Matthew 2:1–12). The focus of all three stories is the act of proskynesis (bowing or prostrating oneself before a person) and the adoration it expresses. As the Magi brought precious gifts to the new-born Christ, so the three warriors were bringing David water from the well of Bethlehem at the risk of their lives.
This fragment of a shutter for a winged altarpiece in the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the finest examples of the Antwerp Mannerist style. In keeping with the increase in private devotion in the early sixteenth century, the topic offers the viewer close-up, intimate involvement.
On the left an aged David sits under a canopy of splendid brocade and velvet and receives richly-armoured knights in his throne room. This is far from being an abandoned place, let alone a cave. Rather, we see David in the centre of a large fortified city—we glimpse its palaces and towers in the background.
The painting is very rich in details—architectural features, simulated metalwork, putti, chained monkeys, exquisite clothes, costly garments and weapons. These are also characteristic of the Mannerist style. The warrior in the foreground presents the container of water to David, who raises his hand, while a turbaned soldier in the background gestures towards them. Their hands form a triangular frame around the vessel, directing our attention to it. It contains the precious water the three warriors took from the well of Bethlehem; the water for which David was longing.
The painting was developed to give flamboyant expression to the new devotional iconography of the period. As the three warriors, the Queen of Sheba and the Magi worshipped David, Solomon, and Christ, respectively—in each case bringing them gifts—so the patron worships God by commissioning the altarpiece.
Sander, Jochen and Peter van den Brink. 2001. Gold, Weihrauch und Myrrhe. Die ‘von Grootesche Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige’—ein wiederentdecktes Meisterwerk der Renaissance in Antwerpen (Frankfurt: Städelsches Kunstinstitut)
Wolff, Martha. 2008. ‘Antwerp Mannerist (Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group)’, in Northern European and Spanish Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago. A Catalogue of the Collection, ed. by Martha Wolff et al (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 129–135
The Politic and the Aesthetic
Commentary by Sara Kipfer
Claude Lorrain depicts the scene of David and his warriors in the context of an impressive landscape. As we know from an inscription on a later drawing of the same subject, he painted this canvas in 1659 for Prince Agostino Chigi, who was the nephew of Pope Alexander VII. Its original location was probably the Castel Sant’Angelo or the palace at the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli in Rome.
It can be assumed that its subject had not been chosen at random. Within a political context in which corruption was not uncommon, it may have been intended to express the patron’s commitment to an ideal of self-restraint and exemplary moral behaviour. Claude painted a moment in the story not focussing on the selfless action of his warriors (which is not depicted), nor on their admiration of David (they do not kneel before him), but on David’s rejection of the water: David lifts his hands in a repelling gesture.
But perhaps the most important feature of this huge painting is not so much the narrative of David and his warriors as the landscape itself. Human gesture, body language, and physiognomic expression are upstaged by the majesty of rocks and trees, and Bethlehem’s wonderful array of pyramids and towers. The landscape becomes a protagonist of this picture, adding its own heroism to the story.
Claude—though a French painter—spent most of his career in Italy. Here, he sets his biblical narrative in hills reminiscent of his adoptive country. His representation of Bethlehem in the middle distance includes free variations of the Roman Torre delle Milizie (upper part) and the Torre dei Conti (lower part). He also vividly includes other details described in the biblical text such as the cave of Adullam—with David and his entourage standing before it—and the valley of Rephaim in the far distance.
By showing a fertile western-European landscape Claude is however underlining the symbolic meaning of the story. There is no aridity here. David’s desire to drink water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem was prompted by nostalgia for the fine-tasting water of Bethlehem’s well and not by real thirst.
Claude’s predilection for the bucolic has its own nostalgia which serves his interpretation of the story well. The experience of David, far away from his hometown and overwhelmed by homesickness, invites the viewer’s sympathy.
Langdon, Helen. 1989. Claude Lorrain (Oxford: Phaidon Press), pp. 101–18
Röthlisberger, Marcel. 1979. Claude Lorrain: The Paintings, Volume 1: Critical Catalogue (New York: Hacker Art Books), pp. 343–45
Sonnabend, Martin. 2011. ‘Claude Lorrain. Die verzauberte Landschaft’, in Claude Lorrain—die verzauberte Landschaft: Ausstellungskatalog, ed. by Martin Sonnabend, Christian Rümelin, and Jon Whiteley (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz), pp. 11–21
Abstinence and Self Control
Commentary by Sara Kipfer
This sixteenth-century engraving by the brothers Johann Theodor and Johann Israel de Bry is part of a book about King David containing thirty-nine prints and associated texts on the vices and virtues of the Hebrew king. The engraving first appeared in 1597 in Frankfurt, but it was reprinted several times in new (translated) editions of the same book, and in illustrated Bibles.
David is standing in the left foreground dressed as a warrior, like the line of men holding long spears that stretches away from him. The three warriors approach from the right, bringing David two large jars filled with water. In the right background the city of Bethlehem is clearly visible, with grand towers and noble houses. Just in front of the city gate, the three warriors are shown at an earlier moment in the narrative. They are drawing water from the well, not far away from the Philistine garrison whose men are also armed with large spears.
The scene in the foreground shows precisely the moment at which David pours out the water, saying that he will not drink it because the three heroes risked their lives to get it:
Far be it for me, Lord, that I do this. Is it not the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives? (2 Samuel 23:17, own translation)
The title of the engraving (not visible here but see Arias Montano 1597: 59, link below) is temperantia regia: ‘royal temperance’. This tells us that the episode is here being interpreted as a demonstration of abstinence and self-control. A short poem containing two elegiac distiches accompanied the engraving together with some further explanation of the biblical text. It encouraged the reader to act like David. David’s longing for the water of his native town Bethlehem was understandable and human. He did what was right, however, in not drinking it.
By resisting the temptation to drink the precious gift, David overcomes his weakness and faults. Realizing the frivolity of his wish, he offers us an example—repenting and refusing to consume what previously he had longed for.
Arias Montano, Benito. 1597. David, virtvtis exercitatissimae probatum Deo spectaculum: ex Dauidis pastoris, militis, ducis, exsulis ac prophetae exemplis (Frankfurt) available at https://archive.org/details/davidvirtvtisexe00aria/page/58
Kipfer, Sara. 2015. Der bedrohte David. Eine exegetische und rezeptionsgeschichtliche Studie zu 1Sam 16–1Kön 2 (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 351–410
Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group :
King David Receiving the Cistern Water of Bethlehem, c.1515–20 , Oil on panel, transferred to canvas
Claude Lorrain :
Landscape with David at the Cave of Adullam, 1658 , Oil on canvas
Johann Theodor de Bry and Johann Israel de Bry :
'David', from David, virtvtis exercitatissimae probatum Deo spectaculum: ex Dauidis pastoris, militis, ducis, exsulis ac prophetae exemplis by Benito Arias Montano (Frankfurt), 1597 , Engraving
From the Devotional to the Dutiful
Commentary by Sara Kipfer
The story of David and the three warriors in 2 Samuel 23:13–17 (with its parallel narrative in 1 Chronicles 11:15–19) is only a few verses long, though we get more of the 'back story' of some of these mighty men in the chapter as a whole. The sequence of actions in this specific narrative is coherent: David expresses a desire to drink the water of the well of his native town of Bethlehem, then occupied by a Philistine garrison. Three of David’s heroes break through the camp and bring him water. But instead of drinking it, David pours it out to the Lord.
Although the story possesses a clear structure, its meaning has often been questioned. It has been suggested that David’s action of pouring away the water must be regarded as ungrateful, rendering his men’s valiant efforts meaningless. The story thus contains a hidden accusation that David needlessly jeopardized the lives of his soldiers. Alternatively, the opposite has been postulated, that the story is ad maioram gloriam regis (to the greater glory of the king). On this reading, David should be praised because he overcame his selfish desire for the water through a last-minute act of self-control. Realizing his sin, he refused to indulge in the fruits of that sin, and thus he resisted drinking the water. The story can also be understood in a profane context as a reconnaissance mission by David’s courageous and brave warriors, as well as in a religious context as a glorification of YHWH by the libation of the water as a sacrifice for God.
Visual interpretations of this story respond variously to these ambiguities—and to some extent sustain them. Several altarpieces of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries which depict the episode focus on themes of faith and adoration (see Kipfer 2018: 6–16). Later visual interpretations, especially engravings from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Kipfer 2018: 16–17), focus instead on themes that are less specifically religious—prioritizing aesthetic effect and emphasizing moral points. The landscape painting by Claude Lorrain primarily stresses the humble reaction of David, and his abstinence and self-control in refusing to drink the water which the three men drew at the risk of their lives.
Both types of images are very typical of their time. The altarpiece-fragment by the Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, was probably made for a devotional context and focusses on a typological and allegorical reading. Meanwhile, Claude’s landscape painting showing David and the Three Heroes at the Cave of Adullam was likely to have been made as decoration for a palazzo in Rome and belongs to a profane context. Its focus is on the moral and aesthetic interpretation of past events, which are treated as history. It renders the story in a way that is as faithful as possible to the scriptural account, but it seeks to be an edifying chronicle rather than presenting us with hidden spiritual meanings.
These two types of images are an excellent example of the hermeneutical shift during the period. Richard Simon (1638–1712), Jean le Clerc (1657–1736), Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1766) and others had striven to ascertain the text’s original meaning in its historical context, and thus its ‘literal sense’ (sensus literalis historicus). The biblical stories were not understood any more as axiomatic truth but were increasingly analyzed through a ‘historical-critical’ method. This new understanding of the biblical text also influenced visual interpretations. Depictions of stories from the Hebrew Bible began increasingly to attempt a life-like depiction of historical reality.
This is not to say that painting ceased to have any moral or religious meaning. At that time the concept of the similitudo temporum still played an important role: a belief that the past, present, and future are identical and that situations in antiquity are repeated in the present day. This concept was especially influential from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century (e.g. Machiavelli, Discorsi I.2; Justus Lipsius was taking up this term in his interpretation of Tacitus; Iusti Lipsi Epistolae I,81 00 00 H, 24–7; see Quaglioni and Comparato 2007: 80; Papy 2005: 66). Pagan-antique figures and Old Testament characters were taken as positive or negative examples in early modern times.
It is therefore likely that the image by Claude Lorrain intended a moral dimension by stressing the humble reaction of David—his abstinence and self-control in refusing to drink the water.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when images changed their function and were not used anymore to instruct the viewer, the story of David and the three warriors finally ceased to be of significance. The topic faded into oblivion and was not taken up by artists any more.
Kipfer, Sara. 2018. ‘David as Saint and Hero in Visual Art (2 Sam 23:13-17 // 1 Chr 11:15–19)’, in Bible in the Arts 2 (BiA), available at: https://www.bibelwissenschaft.de/die-bibel-in-der-kunst/
Papy, Jan. 2005. ‘Neostoizismus und Humanismus. Lipsiusʼ neue Lektrüe von Seneca in der Manuductio ad Stoicam philosophiam (1604)’, in Der Einfluß des Hellenismus auf die Philosophie der Frühen Neuzeit, ed. by Gábor Boros (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz), pp. 53–80
Quaglioni, Diego, and Vittor Ivo Comparato. 2007. ‘Italy’ in European Political Thought 1450–1700: Religion, Law, and Philosophy, ed. by Howell A. Lloyd, Glenn Burgress, and Simon Hodson (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 55–101