Old Testament Scene, possibly The Last Days of the World according to the Prophet Joel by Unknown Flemish artist

Unknown Flemish artist

Old Testament Scene, possibly The Last Days of the World according to the Prophet Joel, Late 16th century, Oil on panel, The Dayton Art Institute, Ohio; Museum purchase with funds provided by an anonymous donor by exchange and by the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio, Inc., 1961.91, Courtesy of the Dayton Art Museum

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Fire and Fury

Commentary by

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.

 

References

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


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