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The Covenant and Divine Promise

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Maria Lidova

In his eighteenth-century painting Giovanni Battista Pittoni brings to the fore the figure of David and his covenant with God. Psalm 110 evokes in a certain way the promise that the Lord makes to David via Nathan which is recorded in 2 Samuel 7:12–16:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. … I will chasten him with the rod of men … And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

In both texts we find the same promises of a kingdom and a future throne of glory, and mentions of divine punishment and of a rod, or sceptre—an instrument of power.

In both the psalm and the biblical narrative, the words of the Lord can be understood historically as referring to events which occurred after the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem and the establishment of the new agreement with God. However, both texts have also been given a Christological interpretation in Christian tradition. David takes on the role of intermediary not only in spiritual terms as interpreter of and communicator of the divine will, but also in a historical sense, since it is from his line, the line of David, that Jesus, the promised offspring, ‘the son’ of God will come into the world.

Indeed, since late antiquity, the content of Psalm 110 has been interpreted as referring to Christ who became associated with the one David calls ‘my Lord’, receiving from the Father power over his enemies, priestly status, and an honour equal to the Father’s own.

Thanks to its later re-appearance in the Gospels, the text was often used in debates with Jews in the Early Christian period about the divinity of Christ. However, no visual expression was available at the time for such a complex theological theme. It was only much later, when a new wave of artistic experiments gave life to a number of unconventional pictorial formulations, that the idea received its visual expression in the form of a ‘New Testament Trinity’. Before that, Eastern Christian art operated with subtler concepts and forms of visual embodiment, revealing the connection between the Father (not representable in accordance with the Second Commandment) and the Son. We see this in images such as the one appearing in the former Dormition Church in Nicaea. The latter was located in the apse above the altar—the altar being commonly referred to in Church tradition as the ‘footstool’ of God and, simultaneously, as his throne. A ‘genetic cord’ connects the Christian sanctuary space to the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. The throne as an attribute of power is implied by the position of Sabaoth—or God the Father—and Christ (Daniel 7:9) in the triumphant image of the Trinity in the Russian icon.

In a certain sense, the three visual testimonies gathered here can be read as a sequence of historical developments taking place from the time of the Old Testament revelation onwards, beginning in the painting by Pittoni with the promise, progressing to that promise’s realization through the mystery of the Incarnation, and reaching final fulfilment in the image of divine glory and cosmic kingship achieved after God’s victory over death.

Furthermore, this exhibition provides three different versions of divine revelation and theophanic vision, played out in the interweaving of the psalm and the biblical narrative. All three images convey a promise of divine protection and sacred presence that the viewer becomes aware of almost immediately, thus becoming a participant in the event of divine disclosure which the psalm presents.

Thanks to the compositional arrangement, the eighteenth-century beholder of Pittoni’s painting was integrated in the mystic experience of David’s vision. While worshipping in the Nicaean church, believers could witness the expression of God’s agency in the blue rays of transparent light penetrating the space of the sanctuary and the womb of the Virgin. Finally, the New Testament Trinity offered an image for individual prayer directing the supplication of the worshipper to the Triune God, portrayed as eternally presiding in Heaven.