Rembrandt van Rijn’s Protestant environment and Jewish neighbours are known to have enhanced his general interest in Old Testament scenes, but the exhilarating, almost oedipal drama dominating much of the books of Samuel—the fraught relationship between King Saul and his successor David—must have been particularly inspiring for the painter’s artistic temperament, drawn to darkness both literally and figuratively. The dramatic moments of that plot are only anticipated in the episode represented here—the very first encounter between the two men, narrated right after David’s clandestine anointing—but Rembrandt already sets the supposedly calm episode in a sombre, tense atmosphere. Only the two protagonists are represented, with the paradoxical combination—typical to Rembrandt—of quasi-monochrome dimness and ‘orientalist’ splendour.
David is completely dominated by the older king in terms of size, position, and lighting, but it is his excellence in music-making that saves the day. Mieke Bal (2006: 355–57) connects the psychoanalytic aspects of the narrative to an emphasis, frequent in the art of painting (and in particular in the work of seventeenth-century artists such as Caravaggio and Velázquez), on the ambitions and deficiencies of seeing. Indeed, the painting is an almost exact contemporary of Velázquez’s famously self-reflective Las Meninas (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Rembrandt’s Saul and David is made still more complex by the dominant presence of sight’s rival sense: hearing. In a dark, visually impoverished environment, musical sounds could gain an enhanced medical and moral agency. Saul covers one of his eyes with what seems to be a curtain, becoming a cyclopean figure staring at the painting’s hypothetical spectators, whereas David’s gaze is vacant, his thoughts lost in the music he is making. While Saul is curled up as if protecting himself from the predicaments of his political life, the young musician emanates soundwaves reaching every corner of the depicted space. Saul seems conscious and wary of that invisible command and, while the Bible insists on his love for David at that moment, clearly senses how destabilizing to him such a power could become.
Bal, Mieke. 2006 . Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)
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.