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.
14 Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16Let our lord now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” 17So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well, and bring him to me.” 18One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skilful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.” 19Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.” 20And Jesse took an ass laden with bread, and a skin of wine and a kid, and sent them by David his son to Saul. 21And David came to Saul, and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 22And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.