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The Book of Kings and David's Death

King David

Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Musée National du Message Biblique Marc Chagall – Nice. 1961.

King David was now a very old man. He was always cold. So his servants found a beautiful young girl to look after him. She was called Abishag of Shunem.

In those times Adoniiah, son of Haggith and one of David’s sons, was growing pretentious and spread the news that he would soon be king after David. He was very handsome and his mother had given birth to him after Absalom. Neither Nathan the prophet or Abiathar, David’s priest, or Joab liked Adoniiah. Nathan and Bathsheba then schemed and spoke to David in favour of Bathsheba’s son Solomon. David summoned his champions and priests. He told them to take Solomon to Gihon. Zadok the priest and the prophet Nathan were to anoint Solomon King of Israel there. They did so, sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ Adoniiah was in terror of Solomon then and all the conspirators fled in all directions. Adoniiah fled in such a hurry that he ran off to cling to the horns of the altar.

During that time David’s life drew to an end. He blessed his son and successor Solomon a last time and gave him good advice to rule over Israel. Then King David died. He was buried in the City of David. He was King of Israel for forty years. He had ruled in Hebron for seven years and in Jerusalem for thirty-three years.

Moshe Segall, called Marc Chagall, was born a Jew in 1887 in Lyozno in the suburbs of the Russian town of Vitebsk, where a thriving Jewish community lived before the Second World War. Chagall left Vitebsk for St Petersburg in 1907 and from there travel to Paris, where he mixed with a group of artists and emigrated Russians, some of which were preparing for the revolution in Russia. He would return to Vitebsk over Germany, where his works were exhibited in Gerhardt Walden’s gallery of contemporary art ‘Der Sturm’. When the First World War broke out, Chagall was trapped in Vitebsk. He married and went to Moscow only in 1920. In Vitebsk he could found an academy of painting with the help of his Bolshevist friends of Paris, but he had to leave that school when abstract avant-garde art overtook his own ideas of the art of painting. He left Russia in 1924 for Paris and would not return anymore to his home country. During the Second World War he was invited to the United States but lost his very beloved wife Bella there and he came back to France after the war. In France he had changed his name from Moshe Segall to Marc Chagall.

Several painters made important series on the themes and spirit of the Old and the New Testament. Georges Rouault dedicated almost his whole production to religious themes, among which the large series ‘Miserere’. Barnett Newman painted fourteen panels on the theme of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ in 1956 and Marc Rothko decorated the chapel of the Catholic University St Thomas of Houston in 1960. Around that same time Chagall started seventeen large canvases on the themes of the first books of the bible. In 1966 he offered these to the French State and France’s government decided to build a museum around the pictures in the town of Nice on the Côte d’Azur, now called the ‘Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall’, the ‘National museum of the Biblical Message’.

In his series Marc Chagall painted the creation of man, Adam and Eve in Paradise, Noah and the Flood, stories from the lives of Abraham and Jacob and several scenes from Exodus and Moses. Finally, Chagall painted five pictures of the ‘Song of Songs’, in which he also evoked David and Bathsheba. To these works were added in the museum the triptych ‘Resistance, Resurrection and liberation’, started around 1937 but on which Chagall continued to work until 1953, a few more works on scenes form Exodus and Moses, a painting of the Prophet Jeremiah, ad ‘Descent of the Cross’ of Jesus Christ, and a painting on the theme of King David. ‘King David’ was made in 1951. Chagall then had lost his first and so beloved Russian wife Bella. He had met however in France another Russian woman, Valentina Brodsky, and married her in 1952. In 1951 he must have known Valentina already and he was reconciled with life. Moreover, Chagall decorated several Catholic churches in France and the figure of Jesus Christ, represented as a Jew, was a recurrent theme in his paintings. Chagall died in France in 1985.

‘King David’ is very typical for Chagall’s work. He painted images that came to his mind around a theme and situated these over the canvas without any logical order, wherever he found a place, guided only by intuition of balance of forms and colour. Chagall was all dedicated to colour in the first place? He never really could or would draw well. His images are all emotion and colour expressed best his lyrical emotions. Chagall’s pictures are the expression of his tenderness, the result of the need of a very sensitive spirit to be alone and dedicate that time to make visible his thoughts of sweetness, sadness, joy, elation and love.

In Chagall’s painting we see King David, crowned, playing the lyre. The lyre was the symbol associated with the young David, not with David the warrior, but with David the romantic poet that had apparently written or assembled the love poems and the ‘Song of Song’, the long song of love that is part of the Bible and of Jewish tradition. For Chagall, David was foremost the musician and poet. David was also oriental, so Chagall painted a striking red robe on David and we see moon-shapes slightly represented on that robe. Maybe the moon patterns remind of the Muslim world that Palestine had become. Chagall mixed Jewish with Christian motives also. David wears a yellow crown, a green beard and he does not really hold the yellow lyre: it floats to his hands; the fingers only play on the strings. This artist saw in colours, but his colours did not necessarily have to concord with reality. His colours were his emotions and when he needed a striking contrast or vividness, he could very well paint a red robe and a green beard. Chagall painted David entirely on the left side; other symbols and scenes are on the right. No special meaning should be given to the assembly of these scenes; they were simply ideas, images that came to the artist’s mind while he worked.

Opposite David we see a long, elongated figure of a white bride. This figure is shown like a white comet appearing in the sky and passing. This would be Bathsheba, the innocent and pure bride of Uriah the Hittite, the woman that David coveted and married after having ordered Uriah to be sent in the heath of battle so that he would be killed. But we know that David represents Marc Chagall here, so that the white bride would be his first wife Bella. Out of the white ghost, out of the passing comet, grows another woman, maybe Valentina or Vava, as she was called, presenting a candelabra of glory and of peace.

Above her we see images remembered from the Jewish shtetl, the Jewish village where Chagall lived near Vitebsk: a horse in a stable, a cock calling the morning and situated against the full moon of night, a fiddler playing the violin of the villagers and also a painter who holds a palette with one hand and a frame with the other. Another woman flies there in the air and brings like an angel a bouquet of bright yellow flowers that match the yellow light of the candelabra. Is that Bella again, agreeing with the peace brought by Vava? These are all peaceful, joyous scenes, referring to the happiness of David’s years.

In the lower part of the picture Marc Chagall represented sad scenes. Happiness and sadness are always together in a life. We see a red sun fiercely red like a ball of fire that consumes a town and drives people out. Chagall may have referred here to a fir that destroyed parts of Vitebsk when he was a very young child. Or he may have referred to the wars of David. Chagall of course also saw these miseries in the two world wars and during the Russian revolution in his lifetime. Here, in the incandescence of the fire, we see a mother fleeing with her child at her breast, a woman almost painted like a Christian Madonna. For David, the destruction of the town and the fleeing people may have come as a nightmare or as a precognition of the future of Jerusalem. David and his son Solomon built a wonderful Jerusalem, but Jeremiah had a vision of the destruction of Jerusalem and lamented over its fate. So Chagall painted a mourning Jeremiah seated in the right corner, painted in dark green colours. We know that the town is Jerusalem, but the realistic rendering its main architectures is not necessary for the viewer to recognise the town. Chagall drew a high tower, the Tower of David, and that symbol suffices for a viewer.

Chagall did not use a deliberately, logically designed composition in his paintings. He did not need intricate, complex, refined design. He painted purely from intuition. He would of course make essays in gouache for a major oil painting, to find the fight feeling of colour areas and forms, but he was far from an academic painter. Chagall applied thus also for ‘King David’ pure and bright colours, which were painterly the ‘right’ ones for Chagall but not necessarily realistic ones. He liked colours that would appeal strongly to the viewers. He used deep red, very pure white, very bright yellow and very strong green. These colours contrast much, cry out against each other, and increase the emotions of attraction, of happiness or of reflection in the viewer. Chagall’s art is all emotion, marvel and lyrical waves of feelings are evoked in the viewer. It would be impossible not to like the gentle, naïve representations of a person that always looked at life and at the Bible with the eyes of a child, unaware of laws or rules. But are all men not like this somewhere in a part of their personality, a part that is all too often repressed or forcibly denied? Chagall feared not showing this part, relished in expressing it to give back to the viewer what that viewer knows very well to exist but is often ashamed of and hides. Yet, the bible is full of those feelings. Chagall was the ultimate poet in the art of painting. He also grasped well the dual nature of David. David was represented in bible stories as the Romantic young shepherd that played the lyre, who was fair and looked innocently at life. But David grew up and Saul held him at court, in the intrigues of the hierarchy of Jerusalem. David married and desired different women. He lusted for Bathsheba and got her, but had to cheat and do wrong for it. He waged many wars, destroyed much, defended Israel and founded a lasting dynasty of kings for the Jews. But we know that the fate of that new and glorious Jerusalem would be destruction of its buildings and deportation of its inhabitants. An old man weeps over such tragic events, and Jeremiah therefore could equally well be the old David, or of course Marc Chagall, because the duality of David is the duality that is in every man.

The images that Marc Chagall presents to the viewer are of course very different from all other views that Bible painters of mainly the seventeenth century showed. Astonishingly however, Chagall’s images were as different from anything else made in his own times. Chagall’s early contemporaries were the dark Expressionist or the avant-garde Abstract artists. Their images had been born in the horror of the twentieth-century world wars and revolutions. Among these painters, Chagall was almost the only one to show images of love and hope, which are always the messages of the New Testament.

David’s dying Charge to Solomon

Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. 1643.

Ferdinand Bol was a Dutch painter, born in 1616 in Dordrecht. He went to Amsterdam around 1635 and for a few years continued to study with Rembrandt and working as Rembrandt’s assistant. From the beginning of the 1640s he worked on his own, so that ‘David’s dying Charge to Solomon’ must have been on of the first pictures made in his own workshop. He made many portraits and we seen also in ‘David’s dying Charge to Solomon’ Ferdinand Bol’s predilection for portraiture, which he did in the beginning in Rembrandt’s style but where later he brought less emphasis on style elements and more on elegance and realistic, neutral, immediately clear, well-delineated depiction.

Ferdinand Bol’s painting is much in line with Rembrandt’s style, even if the picture was made in 1643. Rembrandt was only thirty-seven years old by then, but Ferdinand Bol was ten years younger. We see a picture in mostly brown colours, sharp contrast of light and representing a rather static scene of figures. The people in the circle of Rembrandt took over the master’s vision, but also added elements of design of their own conception and thus modulated Rembrandt’s style. Bol gave more attention to the background and we remark just a slight touch of blue, a colour Rembrandt generally avoided.

Ferdinand Bol showed a very old, dying man lying buried under the linen and the blankets of a huge bed. Bol concentrated the light of the picture on the dying man. The man still holds a sceptre, a crown lies on the bed and thereby the viewer recognises in the bed an old king for otherwise this could have been any old man, dressed in a white sleeping-shirt and wearing a white cap in his head to protect him from the cold. Few viewers would have situated the scene in generally warm Israel. Bol showed immediately how the King has lost all power, practically disappears inside the bed and indeed needs to hand over power to his successor.

Ferdinand Bol showed a dignified Solomon standing sadly on the other side of the bed, holding his arm to his hearth. He is dressed in splendid courtly clothes. Here is some blue on gold, but in pure Rembrandt style Bol had to position Solomon in the darkness and only a little light falls on Solomon’s solemn face.

The third figure is Bathsheba. She too has grown old and like the old David she is enveloped in heavy cloth. She wears large robes and a veil, so that we only see of her face and a hand. Her hand too hangs rather sadly and powerless.

The figures are all static in this picture. They express their feelings in only a subtle way, but the psychology of the figures is shown. Thus, David has only a little strength left to move his right hand – not his full arm – in blessing. He cannot hold up his sceptre nor does he wear his crown. Bathsheba also sits slumped and without force; her hand hangs without energy. And Solomon stands aside, not too close, reverent, sad, but also somewhat haughty and since he is not very close to his father, we feel here already the arrogance of a new King. Solomon has the power of rule already; it does not really need to be given. Ferdinand Bol positioned the three faces of Solomon, David and Bathsheba on one line of sight, linking the three figures firmly together and making sure that from David to Bathsheba the viewer will always look at Solomon too. That is also really the only element of composition in a picture that emphasises the verticals and horizontals to give an impression of stately dignity.

Contrary to what Rembrandt would have done, and although light is only on David, Bol could add details of the background. He painted splendid hues, evolution of brown and golden colours in the curtains on the left, on a golden stand, on Bathsheba’s robes, and on the curtains above and on the right side. The dark colours suggest that the scene as shown by Bol happens in the evening or at night. In this way, Bol could naturally harden the contrasts between light and dark. Bol of course imagined the scene as if it were a scene of a Dutch King dying, even thought he depicted Bathsheba truly as an elderly oriental woman. An advantage of painting night scenes was that the painter could let the light come from a side and a height he wanted. Light did not have to come from above. Light from above, from the sun, might only highlight the upper parts of furniture and figures. In the evening, light could be come from a candle or an oil lamp and that source could be situated anywhere, throwing light from any direction desired by the painter.

The interest of paintings like ‘David’s dying Charge to Solomon’ lies in their historical value. Pictures like these indicate how strong Rembrandt’s influence had been on many painters of his period. But artists like Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout, ad Govert Flinck also knew how to modify Rembrandt’s particular use of the elements of design in painting such as composition and colour. Ferdinand Bol was maybe one of the painters who stayed the closest to Rembrandt’s vision of the art. But Bol was also a very good artist and Rembrandt’s style was well suited, added to Bol’s considerable painterly skills, to bring a fine work of art.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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