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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

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

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

Transformer

Comparative Commentary by

The story of the suicide of Saul is one of the most devastating in the Bible. It concludes the narrative of his rise from obscurity to kingship and of a period of rule marked by ups and downs. His fate is sealed halfway through his reign when he fails to completely destroy the Amalekites and Samuel reports to him:

For rebellion is no less than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king. (1 Samuel 15:23 NRSV)

This foreshadowing indicates that all will not end well for Saul.

These three paintings give us different perspectives on his end, most notably in the way they relate us to his body and to different moments in his death.

Almost life-size, the Mattia Preti painting places us directly beside Saul, joining the other spectators. We get a glimpse of him just before his death. A kind of reverse Thomas-and-Christ scene (John 20:24–29), we view the wounded side that anticipates the suicidal blow to come. His chest is vulnerable, made more so by the contrast with his sunburned face and neck, and we see a very solid body still in its prime, with more to give—a life cut short too soon. It is a body we can empathize with.

Pieter Bruegel I’s epic scene advances us to the moment of Saul’s death, as the long sword awkwardly impales his neck, echoed in the parallel vertical of the chopped tree we see to the right of him. Saul is removed from the centre of focus, merely one person among hundreds. The scale of his body relative to the panel is minuscule and his flesh is ensconced in a shell of armour with only his face visible. This is a remote Saul we see from a distance, placed in the context of bigger events: the armies clashing and the invasion of Israel across the Jordan in the background. At this point, the narrative in both 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles will leave him behind and move on to greater things.

The Flemish fire scene takes this a step further. Saul’s body becomes yet more removed. It is abstracted and flattened, dis-figured, to create an anamorphic effect. Including an anamorphic image in a painting requires the beholder to physically shift perspective to see the ‘secret’ image, which may lead to a deeper interpretation beyond what the straightforward image represents. Here, the figure discoverable at the bottom is a hermeneutical key that brings the other parts of the painting together. It is as if we see Saul the moment after he impales himself, that liminal moment between life and death when composite images of past and future may converge, and one grasps the whole of one’s life in a flash of insight. There is a vision of the future (the destruction the Philistines will inflict on Israel) merging with a vision of the past (his poor decision not to trust God and to consult the medium at Endor). Saul sees what went wrong and its consequences, and—dying—there is nothing that can be changed. In the painting, the wayside cross being placed on Saul’s head may then be read as a marker for Saul’s body and a commemoration of his life, an example of warning for others to heed. The inclusion of the anamorphic image, then, places an ethical demand on the viewer: if one has the eyes to see the hidden image does one also have the ability to learn from the example of Saul rather than seeing the tragic king as a historical curiosity? 

Through these three paintings, Saul transforms from a tangible presence whose pulse we feel, to a distant figure, to (finally) a form almost unrecognizable—even an abstract idea. We feel both his flesh-and-blood individuality and gain insight into the larger story he is embedded in. Given these different visual perspectives on his death, we are challenged to consider what motivates us and where our loyalties lie. In these ways, Saul embodies the position of all humans who live individual lives that are caught up in a network of relations, making daily decisions that will impact those around us and lead us closer to death or life.

Next exhibition: 2 Samuel 6 Next exhibition: 1 Chronicles 11:10–47