David and Absalom [from 'The Bible'] by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall

David and Absalom (from 'The Bible'), 1956, Colour lithograph, 355 x 265 mm, Private Collection, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

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Blood Stains

Commentary by

Marc Chagall carries the story that began with Tamar’s rape in 2 Samuel 13 through to 2 Samuel 18, near the end of the David stories.

The lithograph elides more than one moment in David’s struggle with Absalom. In the lower right, we see Absalom begging for forgiveness from his father years after the murder of Amnon (2 Samuel 14:33); in the upper left, we see Absalom’s assassination by Joab, David’s general. While directing the campaign against Absalom, Joab disobeys David’s order to spare his son and murders him (2 Samuel 18:1–15); David then mourns the death of his rebellious and vicious son (2 Samuel 18:24–33). Absalom’s years of plotting to overthrow his father culminate in total defeat.

Perhaps Chagall chose red for David’s garment—the colour of blood—to call to mind God’s refusal of one of David’s cherished hopes: to build God’s house in Jerusalem in an act that would affirm his victory over the Jebusites. Once David settled in as king of Israel, and long before the confrontation between them, he sought the prophet Nathan’s advice about building God’s house in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7). Nathan initially encouraged David but with dripping irony the biblical author adumbrates what is to transpire in later history. God tells Nathan to tell David that his son, not David, will have that honour. But he does not say why.

The later-dated text of 1 Chronicles fills in the information by putting the words in David’s own mouth: ‘God said to me, “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood”’ (1 Chronicles 28:3).

One wonders whether Chagall’s opulent use of red recalls these biblical counsels. The honour is bestowed upon Solomon who uses foreign policy (through marriage) rather than military might to forward Israel’s empire (1 Kings 11:1). Solomon is stained by idolatry (1 Kings 11:5), but David’s whole body is blood-stained and it spills over onto his son. The blood spilled in war mingles with the blood of violated women like Tamar and the blood of family vendettas. All pass judgement on David and his house.

This is perhaps what Chagall notes (astutely if so) by bleeding David’s red onto Absalom’s beseeching hand and coat.