The Death of Saul by

Mattia Preti [circle of]

The Death of Saul, 17th century, Oil on canvas, 105 x 159.5 cm, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil; Purchased, 1910, CCM.85.992, Courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Merthyr Tydfil

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This is the End

Commentary by

When is the moment you decide you have had enough? If Pieter Bruegel I’s treatment of this scene (elsewhere in this exhibition) 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.

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