David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, from Illustrated Vita Christi by Unknown English artist

Unknown English artist

David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, from Illustrated Vita Christi, c.1480–90, Illumation of tempera colours and gold leaf on parchment, 119 x 170 mm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 101 (2008.3), fol. 14r, Image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

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Spreading the Joy

Commentary by

This page shows two closely related scenes. In the upper field, King David gathers the chosen men of Israel, and prepares for the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The partly obscured heads of the figures in the rear are an attempt to suggest a crowd, to represent the thirty thousand men whom David supposedly brought together for this purpose (2 Samuel 6:1).

In the lower register, the Ark is carried to Jerusalem. It takes the form of a golden ‘aedicule’ reliquary—a structure in the shape of a small building. Such objects would have been familiar to fifteenth-century viewers as containers for something extremely holy. Here it is carried on poles upon the Levites’ shoulders (1 Chronicles 15:15).

Jerusalem is represented by the stone city gate within which David stands. He receives the Ark, rather than leading the procession. This may be a departure from the letter of the biblical text, but perhaps it allows a christological parallel to be played out. The Ark was understood in certain medieval commentaries (e.g. Pseudo-Ambrose [Maximus of Turin], Sermon 42.5) as representative of the Virgin Mary. The Ark contained the tables of the Law (which sealed the first covenant) while the Virgin contained the body of Christ (which sealed the second). In receiving the Ark into Jerusalem this David seems to cement the connection of Christ, born of Mary, with his own kingly line of succession.

There is a further Marian resonance in this scene of welcoming encounter: an echo of the Visitation. When Elizabeth sees Mary she asks, ‘And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’ (Luke 1:43). The verse in Luke is itself an echo of 2 Samuel 6:9, when David asks, ‘How can the Ark of the Lord come into my care?’.

The Ark is accompanied by two musicians, one playing a harp. The harp is positioned near to David, appearing to be closely associated with him even though he does not hold it. It is almost as though the musician has taken temporary charge of David’s familiar instrument and now plays it as his proxy in service of the noisy celebrations attending the Ark’s arrival. On this reading, the harp, like David’s jubilation, is shareable—and viewers of this illumination are being invited to share that jubilation too.


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