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Art appreciation: I thought I would share

The antagonism between Saul and David has long been the subject of artistic interpretation.

The antagonism between Saul and David has long been the subject of artistic interpretation. One of the most amazing operatic productions I have seen at Glyndebourne in the last couple of years was Handel ‘s wonderful oratorio, Saul, transformed into an opera by the brilliant Australian director Barry Kosky. It is the descent into madness of a king who has been, fairly or unfairly, abandoned by God in favour of a stripling shepherd boy who eventually manages, with Divine help to kill Goliath with a slingshot. From then on Saul descends even further into madness, exacerbated by the admonishments of the prophet Samuel. His own son Jonathan forms a deep and lasting friendship with David and David marries Michal, Saul’s daughter, who not once saved him from her father’s deadly wrath.

I always found the Old Testament fascinating. Even the children’s version which people of my vintage all had in their library was full of battles and sieges, deaths and assassinations, intrigue and yes even divine magic, pillars of fire, parting seas, crashing walls and other supernatural phenomena that today have been supplanted by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. If you read Simon Sebag Montefiore’ s Jerusalem, a bestseller a few years ago, you will discover that the history of the Israelites is one steeped in blood and violence, putting both Rowling and Tolkien into third division.

So why all this?

I recently visited the delightful Mauritshuis museum in The Hague and was transfixed by Rembrandt’s interpretation of Saul and David. Just look at Saul wearing all the trappings of his authority and power, covering one eye with his cloak (he may be weeping with emotion at David’s playing but to me he looks as if he has a blinding migraine) and looks out directly and balefully at us with his other eye. The tension is palpable. He looks as if he is on the verge of insanity. David plays the harp in the far-right corner of the painting. While his music was the only thing to calm Saul down he is keeping a safe distance just in case that in a mad fit of jealousy Saul would let fly a javelin; something he in fact did twice. Rembrandt emphasizes the youthfulness of David here. This is still the callow youth anointed by Samuel and not yet the slayer of Goliath, nor of the ten thousand nor the procurer of 600 philistine foreskins as a bride price for Michal’s hand in marriage.

Saul and David by Rembrandt

The positioning of the two figures is immensely bold and takes balance to the edge reminding me of Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John and Reni ‘s magnificent Atalanta and Ippomene. Then of course there are the inimitable Rembrandt brushstrokes that only Velasquez could rival. Just look at those amazing swathes of red in Saul’s cloak.

Most amazingly, this great masterpiece painted between 1646 and 1652 was, at one point actually split in half. It was so overpainted that it was considered to be a bad imitation of the great master. The Mauritshuis in 2007undertook a bold line of restoration revealing a glorious psychological drama that immediately arrests the viewer with its powerful imagery. It was really no surprise that this particular painting fascinated me immediately. A masterpiece which has now a firm place on my personal Hall of Fame that I thought I’d share.

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