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Rembrandt van Rijn

Saul and David, c.1651–54 and c.1655–58, Oil on canvas, 130 x 164.5 cm, The Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. 621, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

Lucas van Leyden

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, c.1508, Engraving; first state, 254 x 184 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund, 1918, 18.65.7, www.metmuseum.org

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.

The Power of Music

Comparative Commentary by

1 Samuel 16:14–23 presents two main themes, and any artist depicting this narrative must take both into account, though the respective dosage can vary. We are witnessing here the inaugurating scene of a saga: it is the first time future rivals David and Saul meet and thus the scene anticipates their complex love-hate relationship. But the scene is also an instance of a prominent intellectual topos in early modern culture: the power of music as purveyor of tranquillity and mental health.

One could sum up the difference between the three representations of the scene discussed here by saying that in each one of them the artist chose to follow the aesthetics of a different early modern theatrical genre. Lucas van Leyden—surprisingly, perhaps, given the story’s dark themes—designed a comic scene, more Molière (avant la lettre) than Shakespeare. It represents the protagonists as, respectively, an excessive, instable, irrational but powerful older man and a young, seemingly clumsy, but secretly cunning and ambitious younger heir.

Rembrandt van Rijn opted for his typical mode of dark tragedy (King Lear inevitably comes to mind), emphasizing aspects of loneliness, despair, failure to see, and dynastic dead end.

Mattia Preti, for his part, put Saul and David at the centre of a silent opera. The new genre of musical theatre was born in Italy at the beginning of Preti’s own century. It was obsessed, in the first few decades of its existence, with the quintessential classical myth about the power of music: the story of Orpheus hypnotizing all nature to placidity and softening even the hearts of the rulers of Hades through his mastery of the lyre. David Playing the Harp before Saul could be an instrumental intermezzo of such a work, proof of the invincibility of music and of its capability to attract, unite, and pacify all living creatures. David, allegedly the future author of the psalms and thus himself not only an improvisatory musician but also the author of divinity-pleasing verse, is thus the Orpheus of Israel, aptly celebrated in an operatic mode, in a spectacle of music, poetry, and extravagant visual effects. 

Beyond this difference of genre, rhetorical mode, and mood, the three representations mostly converge in the specific depiction of both the nascent relationship between Saul and David and the effectivity of music ‘pour passer la mélancolie’ (‘to put melancholy behind you’, the explicit ambition of Johann Jacob Froberger’s Suite no. 30, c.1650, as stated in the title of its first movement).    

In the Old Testament, Saul’s servants promise him that once someone ‘skilful in playing the lyre’ entertains him, he will ‘be well’ (v.16). In view of the subsequent episode in which Saul attacks David while playing, anticipated by the presence of a spear in the king’s hand in all three images, the position of the artists on the issue seems more cautious. Lucas is ironic about the possibility that Saul would be durably assuaged by David’s playing; Rembrandt’s Saul is still immersed in his bad mood and so, in spite of the evident marvelling of all the bystanders, is Preti’s royal figure. The visual splendour of Preti’s work might suggest that where music’s power is significant but limited and ephemeral, painting could more reliably charm its spectators and give them satisfaction. The two artists from Leiden, on the other hand, do not hint at such an advantage for their own medium, as Rembrandt’s painting is austere and hardly soothing and Lucas’s engraving excites nervous laughter more than it appeases.

All three artists emphasize the complexity and the ambiguity of the future relationship between the older king and the man just anointed to take his place. In spite of the laudatory description of David by one of Saul’s courtiers, and the immediate liking the king conceived for him, none of the artworks takes this report at face value. All describe a tension not yet literally present in our biblical passage but dominating the following chapters. These chapters will recount the uncomfortable coexistence of the two kings—one fallen from grace, the other destined to fame and glory (though not unambiguous either). In fact, the two themes are closely linked: Saul’s anxiety might indeed have been soothed by music, but (ironically) it was precisely the person brought to try to lull him into tranquillity who would justify his fears. Our three artists, knowing what the books of Samuel will narrate next, are fully aware of the hopelessness of this endeavour, or at least of its necessarily short-lived success. 

Next exhibition: 1 Samuel 17