David's Greatest Triumph, The Ark Enshrined in Jerusalem, David Blesses Israel, from The Crusader Bible (The Morgan Picture Bible) by Unknown French artist [Paris]

Unknown French artist [Paris]

David's Greatest Triumph, The Ark Enshrined in Jerusalem, David Blesses Israel, from The Crusader Bible (The Morgan Picture Bible), c.1244–54, Illumination on vellum, 390 x 300 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Purchased by J.P. Morgan (1867–1943) in 1916, MS M.638, fol. 39v, Photo: The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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A Merry-Making Monarch

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

The Morgan Bible’s concentration on kingly stories—especially of King David—seems to be designed to appeal to a royal patron. The Bible was probably created in Paris for Louis IX of France around the years 1244–54. This illumination asks us to consider what royal dignity and royal duty demand.

In the upper register, David, crowned and wearing an ermine-lined cloak, leads the procession carrying the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. This was a moment of huge significance in the biblical story, because, with the Ark, God’s glory came to Jerusalem. It was an occasion for celebration. The king leaps and dances.

The artist has assumed that David, as he danced, was one of the many who were playing musical instruments (2 Samuel 6:5). Presumably David is given a harp here (the texts do not mention the instrument) because he is commonly shown with his harp in other depictions, such as at the start of Psalm 1, and because he had played the harp for Saul (1 Samuel 16:14–23).

The Ark was God’s throne; it was holy. Once it had arrived in Jerusalem, it established that city as the centre of Israel’s worship, as well as the political capital of David’s kingdom. The altar and the candles and the sacrifice of animals in the lower register reflect the worship that David later commanded (2 Samuel 6:17–18).

This grand entry notwithstanding, David’s legitimacy was challenged. We can see this at the very top right of the illumination in the figure of Michal, David’s wife (the daughter of his predecessor, Saul) who leans out of a window and appears to reprimand him. 2 Samuel 6:16–20 tells of Michal despising David for his dancing, because it did not seem to her to fit with the royal dignity. David reproves her (vv.20–21) and sets out his understanding of kingly rule under God.

Medieval commentators, including Gregory the Great, noted that by dancing before the Lord David overcame himself, and made himself noble through humility (Gregory Moralia in Job, 27.46). His dancing is both exultation, and an act of personal abasement. David is thus shown to be noble in a truer sense—an appropriate message for a royal book.

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