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Saulís Attempt on Davidís Life


Saul attacking David

Giovan Francesco Barbieri called Il Guercino (1591-1666). The National Gallery of Art in the Palazzo Barberini Ė Rome. 1646.




Saul put David in command of fighting men and David was successful in his missions so that Saulís staff and the people respected him. After a while however, the people sang songs on David. The songs went, ĎSaul has killed thousands and David has killed tens of thousandsí. Saul grew jealous then. Saul removed David from his presence and appointed him commander of a thousand men, to lead the people on campaigns. Saul feared David for Yahweh was with David whereas Yahweh had abandoned Saul. War broke out again and David sallied out with the Israelites to fight the Philistines once more. David defeated the Philistines.

Saul wanted David to perish now. For that, David had to fight the Philistines. Saul tempted David into marrying his daughter Merab. In reward for Merab he told David to serve him and to fight Yahwehís wars. But David found his lineage was too low so Merab was given to Adriel of Meholah instead. Somewhat later, Michal, another daughter of Saulís fell in love with David and this pleased Saul because he could thus repeat his ploy. He asked of David to bring him one hundred foreskins of Philistines and that would be the only bride price Saul demanded of David for Michal. David thought it would be a fine thing to be the kingís son-in-law so he killed two hundred Philistines and brought the foreskins to Saul. David then married Michal

It is told in the Book of Samuel that David fought the Philistines and defeated them for King Saul. But one day, when David was playing the harp in Saulís palace, an evil spirit came over Saul. Saul sat near David with his spear in his hand. Saul tried to pin David to the wall with his spear, but David avoided the thrust and the lance stuck in the wall. David thus avoided Saulís spear twice. David fled then and went to his own home.

Guercino painted this scene when he was about fifty-five years old, in his later period, when he liked more the restrained, Classicist style of the Baroque period than his earlier style of rich, passionate colouring and overt show of emotions.

In ĎSaul attacking Davidí, Guercino stressed the monumentality of his personages of the Bible, to better express the epic of the old Bile stories. Like in many Classicist paintings we see just a few personages, here only Saul and David, and a very frugal background. Guercino painted a few columns behind his figures and only the sky with clouds. But he had a fine eye for using the background. David is young and frail, a poet and a music player; he looks not at all like a warrior. Guercino set one column behind David, and he placed the column even only in half against the border of the frame. He placed the column to the right of David, not right behind him, and in the direction of Davidís movement of escape so that this column, though a very vertical and static element, adds subtly to the impression of rightward movement of David. Behind Saul however, Guercino placed two massive, dark columns shown in their full width. These are right behind Saul and so emphasise the power of the king but also his still position. Saul thrusts his spear with all his body and strength, but he does not move.

Behind the columns the viewer discovers a blue sky and clouds, but a sky almost without effects of aerial perspective. S the scene remains very theatrical, as if it were a rehearsed act of a theatre play. The scene remains flat; space is only in the scene of the figures, in the seemingly narrow palace room. Guercino also fixed his personages in action, as if they were statues or actors that wanted in slow motion to offer the viewer more time to watch the scene. The personages seem to be fixed in time. Yet, Guercino also used the slanting lines of movement in his pictures. David is drawn in such an oblique direction and Saul even more so. Their main body lines go to the right, as David flees to that side and Saul seems to lean with his body in that direction also, to near David. Saul holds his pear downward, also in a slanting direction, but aimed straight at David. The viewerís eyes go from this spear always to David.

Although we remark in this picture flowing cloaks, such as in Davidís blue cloak or Saulís orange-red one, and very ostentatious show of rapid gestures, the clear lines and cool colours give an impression of distance to the viewer. Saul is in the very act of thrusting his spear and Davidís arm tries to avert the danger. These gestures should have evoked feelings of motion in the viewer, but the well-delineated colour areas and the non-committing hues fix the figures in space and time. There are as well elements in this picture that would attract a viewer, as there are elements that would restrain the spectator from becoming emotionally involved in the scene. This contradiction or conflict in evoked impressions is rather disconcerting for a viewer. It is however a concept of style that is very Classicist and that was employed, developed, nurtured by the Bolognese school of Classicism. The effect seems to capture the attention of the viewer for a while, while the viewer looks and tries to find a solution for the conflict. But there is no solution, so the viewer remains interested for quite some time before the painting, which is always an effect arduously desired by painters. Bu tit also leaves the viewer at the end perplexed and unsatisfied.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, nicknamed Guercino which meant Ďthe squinterí, was born in Cento, a small village between Bologna and Ferrara. He taught himself to paint, but he knew the style of the school of Bologna well and its Classicist views of the Carraccis. In his youth he was a more overtly Baroque painter than the Carraccis so that his pictures show more the warmth, exuberance of Baroque. In later years he returned to the colder and classicist style of Bologna. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV asked him to come to Rome but at the Popeís death in 1623 already he came back to Cento. When Guido Reni died in 1642 in Bologna, he moved to that town to become the leading painter there. He died in Bologna in 1666. Guercino painted the picture we discuss together with another one, Samson and Delilahí, in 1646 for Cardinal Falconieri, who was at that time the Papal Legate to Bologna. I29. The picture was made a few years after Guercino had definitely returned to settle in Bologna.

Guercino had the marvellous skills of a master painter, and he had a mind of his own, his proper views on art, as can be seen in ĎSaul attacking Davidí. Guercino also worked much on copper from about 1615 to 1625 and although ĎSaul attacking Davidí is a painting in oil on canvas, Guercino brought some of the feeling for the smooth fluidity of paint in fine copper in this canvas: all colour areas are well covered and uniform in hue, perfectly filled-in and juxtaposed, and all details of zones well cared for in delicate chiaroscuro. Guercino painted fine details, in clearly separated colour areas. His figures are finely shown. The way he painted the smallest details of Saulís cuirass, in steel-grey hues and in which chiaroscuro is both elegantly and elaborately displayed, is just wonderful. Guercino used overall the grey and blue colours to support a cool mood, and that mood of course contrasts entirely with the hot, impulsive act of Saul. Guercino applied the grey also for the flesh of Saulís arms, face, spear and tunic. Yet, Saul should have been red-blooded by sudden anger. Also Davidís face is almost grey. The columns and clouds are grey. But then Guercino also used wonderful blue areas in Davidís cloak and in Saulís lower armour plates, harmonising the orange-red-brown in Davidís robe and Saulís cloak. Guercino had to use somewhat more orange and more yellow hues in Davidís robe to match Davidís blue cloak (a little yellow contrasts better blue since it is its complementary hue). In Saulís figure however, where he used mainly steel-grey, Guercino could force more pronounced red in Saulís cloak, so that Saul balances better David in hues. And he dared to use a little green lower down on Saul, but then also a green with yellow strokes to contrast well Saulís blue lower armour. Lighter shades of this yellow-green colour are on Davidís trousers. So Guercino used a refined set of matching and nicely contrasting colours, but few of them Ė except the blue, which expresses the coldness of the scene - are straightforward and familiar hues.

Guercino showed Saul as the elder, powerful, bearded king and David as a very young boy, girlishly playing the harp. Davidís face is surrounded by luxurious, girlish curls. It would be hard to believe that David was then already a fierce warrior, who had not only slain the giant Goliath but who had also defeated repeatedly the Philistine armies. David had led Saulís troops to victory and he had fought with the men. He should have been a powerful youth by now, well muscled and manly in demeanour. But Guercino did not paint David as any viewer would have expected him. This however might have been the contrast that irritated Saul. Saul himself we expect as a bulky, hairy devil of a man, a sleek schemer and vicious person. But Guercino shows him as a more refined king. These conflicts and contradictions in representation are very much the main interest of the picture and certainly no error of judgement of Guercino. We have seldom been brought before a painting that evokes such mixed feelings, evoked expressly by a painter that played thus with the viewerís reactions in novel modes.


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