David Playing the Harp Before Saul by Mattia Preti

Mattia Preti

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, c.1670, Oil on canvas, 208.5 x 301.8 cm, Private Collection, With The Matthiesen Gallery 1986; Photo © Matthiesen Ltd.

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The Biblical Orpheus

Commentary by

Mattia Preti, who was active in the most important hubs of Caravaggism in Southern Europe—Rome, Naples, and Malta—presents here a belated version of some of the typical characteristics of that artistic style. His depiction of the first encounter between Saul and David is vigorous and dynamic, far from the lethargic melancholy suggested by other artists. In this sense, it can be deemed typically Baroque; it insists on the ephemeral instant in a composition ostensibly frozen in time. Witnesses of every gender, age, and race are petrified by the musical charisma of the future psalmist. Preti’s typical brilliant white light enhances the drama: the cloudy sky seems to be clearing up just like Saul’s melancholia.

For the biblical episode, Preti borrows elements from an eclectic array of sources, both mythological and mundane. The figure of David attracting a motley group of people to his magical music-making is reminiscent of Orpheus’s magnetic prowess—pacifying the entire natural world with his lyre. Closer yet to his habitual artistic references, Preti here pursues the development of tavern and concert scenes to which Caravaggist circles earlier in the century repeatedly contributed.

Paradoxically, in this group of humans all ravished and hypnotized by the talented harpist, the least affected seems to be Saul himself. Dominating the diagonal composition but still shrouded by shadows and thus contrasted with the brightly-lit David, the older king is shown to belong to Israel’s past, on his way to oblivion. Perhaps recalling what was suffered by the recipients of certain mental health treatments in Preti’s day, Saul is here paying the price of a debilitating apathy for the tranquillisation of his ‘evil spirit’ (1 Samuel 16:14). The solace brought to him by David is as ephemeral as the instant depicted here; soon enough, the new king will make him jealous and frustrated; worse still, David will deprive him of his dynastic posterity.

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