King David Receiving the Cistern Water of Bethlehem by Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group

Master of the Antwerp Adoration Group

King David Receiving the Cistern Water of Bethlehem, c.1515–20, Oil on panel, transferred to canvas, 72.7 x 26.8 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago; Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson, 1936.127, The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

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Adoration and Belief

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

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

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