1 Samuel 31; 1 Chronicles 10
Fire and Fury
Commentary by Peter Doebler
The seemingly unrelated parts of this painting create a puzzle for the viewer and have led scholars to offer differing interpretations. Key to the understanding of this work is the anamorphic figure at the bottom—anamorphic because it only comes into focus when viewed obliquely from the right. It represents a crowned soldier falling on a sword, suggesting the fate of King Saul.
Identifying the anamorphic image helps explain the scene in the upper right as Saul’s encounter with the medium at Endor, when the spirit of Samuel is roused (1 Samuel 28:3–25). Making reference to that story provides a backward-looking perspective that gives a history to Saul’s demise, something the 1 Chronicles version makes explicit in its conclusion (10:13–14).
If these interpretations are right, then the central scene seems to require us to interpret it as the destruction that the Philistines bring upon Israel after the defeat of Saul. However, the painting may have a wider perspective, which gives rise to its alternative title. There are parallels with the book of Joel, such as distressed animals and burning fields (1:18–19) and the Day of the Lord which is there described as ‘a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness. … Fire devours in front of them’ (2:1–2 NRSV). This extends the scope of the painting.
The tale of Saul’s death is recounted both in 1 Samuel and in 1 Chronicles. The latter version comes at the beginning of the book, right after a series of genealogies (1 Chronicles 1–9), and it makes a clear reference to the reason for Saul’s rejection by God: it was because of Saul’s unfaithfulness that ‘the LORD put him to death’ (10:13 NRSV). Chronicles will go on to recount the uneven history of the kings of Israel and Judah, concluding with the people’s exile in Babylon (which had also been imposed for unfaithfulness) and the promise of their return (2 Chronicles 36:15–23).
Connecting the death of Saul with imagery from Joel creates a more universal image that spans the history of Israel and extends into the future—even to the eschaton. In this way, the painting creates a melancholy memorial of how key moments of decision can start a chain of events that lead to both self-destruction and devastation for others.
Baltrušaitis, Jurgis. 1976. Anamorphic Art, trans. by W. J. Strachan (New York: Harry N. Abrams), pp. 24–25
Panofsky, Erwin. 1958. ‘December 17 correspondence’, Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio
Alone Again, Naturally
Commentary by Peter Doebler
Pieter Bruegel I’s painting attracts the eye like an anthill: teeming with bodies and movement, the spectacle is dizzying. The cacophony of the armies in the lower right corner is balanced by the open expanse in the upper left and we get a bird’s-eye-view of the event.
The most surprising thing is how the core event of the story—the suicide of Saul—is pushed aside. If one does not know the title of the painting, and perhaps even if one does, it could take a while to pick up on this detail and figure out what the scene is about. Once the eye finds it on the left margin, what is conveyed is a sense of loneliness, as if Saul and his armour-bearer float on an island above the tumult below. The biblical accounts are ambiguous about the proximity of Saul to his sons (1 Samuel 31:2–3; 1 Chronicles 10:2–3). Bruegel exploits this gap, isolating the father from the diminutive figures who lie slain on the rock jutting up in the middle of the painting.
Saul’s marginalization in this composition is further reinforced by the line of archers depicted at the centre of the panel. They all point to the right, away from Saul. The text states that Saul was wounded by the archers and then asked his armour-bearer to kill him (1 Samuel 31:3–4; 1 Chronicles 10:3–4). Yet, in Bruegel’s version it is not obvious that Saul was ever struck; indeed, the overall composition suggests otherwise; that Saul is almost ignored, an afterthought. Even the soldiers clambering up the rock face in the lower-left foreground—it is unclear whose side they are on—appear surprised to stumble upon the dying Saul. The uncanny scene summarizes the loneliness that marks the life of this tragic figure, from the man who did not particularly want to be king to the megalomaniac who later did not want to relinquish power.
This is the End
Commentary by Peter Doebler
When is the moment you decide you have had enough? If Pieter Bruegel I’s treatment of this scene presents a panorama, Mattia Preti’s painting is a tight focus. Bodies crowd the canvas, especially the bare torso of Saul, stretched out in a way that is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox (1655) or Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas (c.1570s). Almost dead centre is the wound in Saul’s side, presumably the result of a Philistine archer’s arrow (1 Samuel 31:3; 1 Chronicles 10:3).
The armour-bearer crouches over Saul, inspecting the wound. Saul appears to look at his assistant, suggesting this is the moment when he asks to be killed. It is an intimate scene, a mutual recognition that the end is near. The emotional impact is intensified by the addition of figures who are not mentioned in the text, adding faces of different generations who register the tragic event in ways that invite multiple interpretations—compassion, shock, disbelief. The biblical text reports the suicide briefly, as if decided and executed in minutes. Here, it is stretched out and we feel a process underway. We sense time being taken to examine, consider, and discuss all options. We sense the remembrance of things past (the battles shared, Saul’s complex record as king). And we sense forebodings of the future—would this be the end of the Israelite kingdom that had just begun?
This focus on the wounded Saul brackets out the other action described in this biblical episode. We are not shown Saul falling on his sword, as in the other works in this exhibition. Rather, our imaginations must fill in the details of his death, and more besides. We may picture Saul’s dead sons; how the Philistines will overrun the Israelite armies; and how ultimately the admiration of those who served under Saul will drive them to reclaim his body—ending this tragic story with a note of hope that perhaps all is not lost.
Unknown Flemish artist :
Old Testament Scene, possibly The Last Days of the World according to the Prophet Joel, Late 16th century , Oil on panel
Pieter Bruegel I :
The Suicide of Saul in the Battle of Mount Gilboa against the Philistines, 1562 , Oil on oak panel
Mattia Preti [circle of] :
The Death of Saul, 17th century , Oil on canvas
Commentary by Peter Doebler
The story of the suicide of Saul is one of the most devastating in the Bible. It concludes the narrative of his rise from obscurity to kingship and of a period of rule marked by ups and downs. His fate is sealed halfway through his reign when he fails to completely destroy the Amalekites and Samuel reports to him:
For rebellion is no less than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king. (1 Samuel 15:23 NRSV)
This foreshadowing indicates that all will not end well for Saul.
These three paintings give us different perspectives on his end, most notably in the way they relate us to his body and to different moments in his death.
Almost life-size, the Mattia Preti painting places us directly beside Saul, joining the other spectators. We get a glimpse of him just before his death. A kind of reverse Thomas-and-Christ scene (John 20:24–29), we view the wounded side that anticipates the suicidal blow to come. His chest is vulnerable, made more so by the contrast with his sunburned face and neck, and we see a very solid body still in its prime, with more to give—a life cut short too soon. It is a body we can empathize with.
Pieter Bruegel I’s epic scene advances us to the moment of Saul’s death, as the long sword awkwardly impales his neck, echoed in the parallel vertical of the chopped tree we see to the right of him. Saul is removed from the centre of focus, merely one person among hundreds. The scale of his body relative to the panel is minuscule and his flesh is ensconced in a shell of armour with only his face visible. This is a remote Saul we see from a distance, placed in the context of bigger events: the armies clashing and the invasion of Israel across the Jordan in the background. At this point, the narrative in both 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles will leave him behind and move on to greater things.
The Flemish fire scene takes this a step further. Saul’s body becomes yet more removed. It is abstracted and flattened, dis-figured, to create an anamorphic effect. Including an anamorphic image in a painting requires the beholder to physically shift perspective to see the ‘secret’ image, which may lead to a deeper interpretation beyond what the straightforward image represents. Here, the figure discoverable at the bottom is a hermeneutical key that brings the other parts of the painting together. It is as if we see Saul the moment after he impales himself, that liminal moment between life and death when composite images of past and future may converge, and one grasps the whole of one’s life in a flash of insight. There is a vision of the future (the destruction the Philistines will inflict on Israel) merging with a vision of the past (his poor decision not to trust God and to consult the medium at Endor). Saul sees what went wrong and its consequences, and—dying—there is nothing that can be changed. In the painting, the wayside cross being placed on Saul’s head may then be read as a marker for Saul’s body and a commemoration of his life, an example of warning for others to heed. The inclusion of the anamorphic image, then, places an ethical demand on the viewer: if one has the eyes to see the hidden image does one also have the ability to learn from the example of Saul rather than seeing the tragic king as a historical curiosity?
Through these three paintings, Saul transforms from a tangible presence whose pulse we feel, to a distant figure, to (finally) a form almost unrecognizable—even an abstract idea. We feel both his flesh-and-blood individuality and gain insight into the larger story he is embedded in. Given these different visual perspectives on his death, we are challenged to consider what motivates us and where our loyalties lie. In these ways, Saul embodies the position of all humans who live individual lives that are caught up in a network of relations, making daily decisions that will impact those around us and lead us closer to death or life.