The Suicide of Saul in the Battle of Mount Gilboa against the Philistines by Pieter Bruegel I

Pieter Bruegel I

The Suicide of Saul in the Battle of Mount Gilboa against the Philistines, 1562, Oil on oak panel, 34.7 x 55.6 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1011, Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY

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Alone Again, Naturally

Commentary by

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. 

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