David Before the Ark of the Covenant by Giovanni Battista Pittoni

Giovanni Battista Pittoni

David Before the Ark of the Covenant, c.1760, Oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Photo: Finsiel / Alinari / Art Resource, NY

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David Before the Lord

Commentary by

This painting by the eighteenth-century Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni portrays King David on his knees before the Ark of the Covenant. The scene is usually associated with 1 Chronicles 16:1. According to the Scriptures, David transported the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and placed it on Mount Zion. The line in Psalm 110—‘The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre’ (v.2)—seems not to be accidental in this context. Both the king and the LORD share their seat of power on the Holy Mountain. The king’s rule is rendered mighty by the Lord’s commission.

David, traditionally honoured as the author of the psalms, wears his full regalia, consisting of golden crown, fur cape and luxurious garments. Nevertheless, he demonstrates his reverence and humility before the Ark.

The latter is depicted as a longitudinal casket with angelic figures on top, known to have decorated the original container of the Tablets of the Law (Exodus 25:10–22). David’s traditional attribute of a harp is put aside, left almost carelessly on the steps of the temple at far right, as the King of Israel pays homage to his Lord.

Nothing intervenes in the silent dialogue between David and God, not even the High Priest (Nathan, perhaps) who is depicted standing behind David adjusting or simply staying the motion of the censer. His presence is justified not only by his ritual activity but also by the way he indicates the particular sacred, almost sacerdotal, powers of the king himself. This theme of priesthood resonates with the words of the Psalm ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ (v.4).

The condensing clouds of smoke around the holy of holies, and the opening of the sky in the upper right corner of the composition, allude to the idea of the divine presence.

Pittoni masterfully highlights the fact that only David is aware of this revelation of God’s presence, while other figures—the priest, the two men conversing in the background, and the boy playing with a dog—are left unaware of the mystery. The painting shows us a moment of privileged access that is the king’s alone. In this respect it helps us to grasp one of Psalm 110’s central ideas: that the King of Israel and all his descendants have supremacy over their enemies, and spiritual sovereignty over the world, because of their special covenant with God.

 

References

Caneva, Caterina (ed.). 2002. Il Corridoio Vasariano agli Uffizi (Firenze: Silvana Editoriale), pp.155–6

Zava Boccazzi, Franca. 1979. Pittoni, Giambattista [l’opera completa] (Venezia: Alfieri), p.129