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Bernardo Cavallino

The Murder of Amnon by his brother Absalom, 17th century, Oil on canvas, 103 x 133 cm, Private Collection, Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Jan Steen

Amnon and Thamar, c.1661–70, Oil on oak panel, 67 x 83 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud; Acquired in 1936 as part of the Carstanjen collection, WRM 2536, © Rheinisches Bildarchiv, rba_c010936

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

The Poison of Power

Comparative Commentary by

Disclosure of male sexual lust points toward the lust for power that suffuses the House of David originally blessed by God (2 Samuel 7).

Samuel’s warning against monarchy (1 Samuel 8:10–22) hovers over both biblical books that carry his name. He objected strenuously when the Israelites first begged for a king as other nations had. The self-destructive poison of power yields the desecration of women, fratricide, war, civil war, societal instability. Samuel weeps in his grave.

Of our three artists, two seem to have got the biblical author’s point, while Jan Steen seems to miss it, at least on first reflection.

Bernardo Cavallino and Marc Chagall understand that the evil actors, Amnon and Absalom, are the chief subjects of the stories while Steen seems caught up in his cultural location—one that was closely connected with the theatre. His training taught him to paint exaggerated figures as if the characters were stage actors. His painting is as much about the fool as it is about the debased rapist or the violated woman.

But from ancient times up to our own day, innocent rape victims are often shamed although they are guiltless, and even in some cases considered accomplices to what the rule of law knows to be a crime against them. In rape as in slavery (they often go together), it is the victim’s dignity that is lost, not that of the perpetrator.

These three art works, hovering around the rape of Tamar (prepared for by David’s crimes of adultery and murder, and their aftermath) reveal much about ancient Israel’s sordid leadership. Fortunately, it was carefully preserved for our edification by the Deuteronomist as a great red flag. The author(s) of the Deuteronomic history, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, tell an extended morality tale that every age can understand. And this narrative inexorably points to us, just as the author hoped.

The Deuteronomist knows that power corrupts weak spirits. He is direct. Our painters, along with other interpreters of the text, wend their way between the morally astute biblical authors on one side and their immediate audiences on the other—finding bridging points between the two.

These texts need no help from modernizers. In 2 Samuel 13–18 we enter the entrails of human ignominy. Judaism’s rabbinic sages noted that trespass breeds trespass (Pirkei Avot 4:2); the biblical authors got it.

Steen contemporizes the rape of Tamar for his effete seventeenth-century audience dwelling in opulent theatrical foppery. He seems to have reinforced the misogyny of the biblical story. Though this may cause us to raise our eyebrows in shock some four centuries later, it is possible that he hoped to engender a sense of arch collusion among his original viewers.

For his part, Cavallino exposes the ugly lust for power that abides in the human breast. What could speak more directly to our own moment? Intrigue, scheming, lying, back-biting, betrayal, self-advancement, flaunting, selling one’s integrity, manipulating others for personal political and ultimately financial and corporate advancement—all this leers at us. So does the politicization of our base taste for revenge, dressed up as righteous anger. Self-gain clothed as retribution is an apt motif for many political moves in our present day.

The West inherited religion from the ancient Israelites and many aspects of the rule of law from the ancient Romans. The West is now struggling to hold onto both.

At least two of our artists appear to have selected biblical texts in order to edify their audiences. Today Cavallino might be identified as a peace activist using art to highlight the ugliness of human ambition dressed in royal garb. Chagall, whose work presses deeply into the biblical stories, takes us inside the mind and heart of one of ancient Israel’s most complex and vaunted characters. David is an outsized figure both in the Hebrew Bible, where he figures in his own right, and in the Younger Testament where he authenticates Jesus’s pedigree (Matthew 1). Some may object that the biblical characters are not legitimated beyond the biblical text but the blood-stained life of this dashing yet ugly powerhouse would be difficult to invent. David is complex enough to be real.

But Tamar may not be eclipsed, for she has every bit as much to teach.

Art does theology in many of the ways that other genres do. It has the advantage of being immediately accessible to wider audiences than the written word. It speaks in every age. Despite the profound moral flaws of Steen’s interpretation of Tamar’s story, he at least acknowledges the fact that a woman is ineradicably at the heart of this tale.

The story of male power interpreted here by three male artists is truly told only with her help.