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David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1459/1460 – 1517/1518). The National Gallery – London.

That same night after Saul’s attempt to kill David, Saul sent agents to David’s house to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him and told him to flee. Michal let David down through a window and David escaped from the grip of Saul. Michal took an image of David, put a tress of goat’s hair at the head and placed the image in bed, covering it up. When Saul’s agents came in the house, Michal told them that David was ill and in bed. The agents went back to Saul, but Saul ordered them to bring David – ill or not – to him. The agents found the image now and Saul scorned Michal for having deceived him and let his enemy, David, flee.

David in the meantime went to Samuel at Ramah.

When Saul learned how Michal had helped David to escape, he bitterly reproached his daughter for having saved David. Saul then gave Michal to Palti, son of Laish, from Gahim, as wife.

Samuel and David lived for a while in the huts of Ramah. The agents sent by Saul to Ramah all fell into frenzy and could not harm Samuel or David. Even Saul, who went there to take revenge on David himself, went into frenzy. He stripped off his clothes and fell naked on the ground in front of Samuel and David. David fled from Ramah.

David confronted Jonathan over these events. Jonathan still thought his father would not kill David. He said he would hear his father out and in the meantime David could stay in the country. Jonathan swore to David to tell him the truth and he asked David to swear also that if he, Jonathan, died, not to let his name be exterminated with Saul’s family. The youth loved each other dearly. Jonathan did try out his father but Saul flew into a rage when Jonathan defended David. Saul said that as long as David lived neither Jonathan nor his royal rights would be secure. Saul was determined that David should die and even in his anger threatened Jonathan with his spear. Jonathan returned to David as promised and he told David the truth. Jonathan then wanted David to stay and hide in the country. The two youths embraced and wept copiously before they departed. But Jonathan kept his oath to David.

The Italian painter Gianbattista Cima da Conegliano tried to express the friendship between the two youths David and Jonathan.

Cima was a painter of the Veneto born around 1460 in the village of Conegliano, hence his name. He remained there until around 1484, and then worked in Vicenza. In 1492 he moved to Venice. He painted many pictures in bright colours and he had a good sense of harmonious and balanced compositions. He had a keen idea of landscapes. In 1516 Cima returned to Conegliano, where he died around 1517 or 1518. He may have been formed in Vicenza in the workshop of Bartolomeo Montagna and influences ascribed to him may have been by the main Venetian masters like Alvise Vivarini, Antonella da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Giorgio da Castelfranco called Giorgione and Vittore Carpaccio – in other terms, all painters from which he had seen pictures. Cima painted in an effortless way, absorbing images and styles of the others without imprinting his own force of style on the period. He was a good professional and delivered simple paintings with the charm and delicacy that Venice appreciated. His pictures were clear, luminous, in nice, harmonious and rather pure hues, uncomplicated in composition and could be understood rapidly. What Cima lacked in power, he added in picturesque. Cima was very likable and quite esteemed in Venice. His ‘David and Jonathan’ is such a picture.

Cima’s ‘David and Jonathan’ is a graceful, poetic picture of two young boys walking leisurely and calmly in the Veneto countryside. Cima painted the boy on the left the smaller, stockier, more robust and broader in the shoulders. This boy is dressed like a shepherd. We know that he is David because he holds the head of Goliath, his trophy, casually in his right hand. The head of Goliath seems still to live and to look menacingly with open eyes at the viewer. But David does not give the head a particular look. He carries a large curved sword over his shoulder. The boy has golden locks, a full face and he looks intently but innocently before him. He wears a sling at his belt. That was the weapon that killed the giant Goliath, not the sword. Cima painted David as if he were a young martyr. It was the habit from medieval times to depict Saints with their instruments of passion and in that same practice, Cima showed David with the attributes that he is well known for in the Bible: with Goliath, the sling and the sword. David was the armour bearer of King Saul. There can be no doubt to any viewer that this is David, identification is easy and immediate.

Next to David walks a young soldier, dressed in green leather armour. He wears a red cloak over his shoulders and in the folds of this cloak we can see that Cima knew how to paint chiaroscuro and give an impression of volumes as well as any other master Venetian painter. The boy is taller than David, thinner and with finer looks. He wears a long lance that is in fact a very long, thin arrow. It is not specified in the Book of Samuel how the Philistines at the battle of Mount Gilboa killed Jonathan and his brothers Abinadab and Malchishua, but the Bible does tell that the Philistine archers came upon their father, King Saul, and severely wounded him. So Cima presumed probably that the Philistine archers also had killed Jonathan and he painted him with a long arrow. Jonathan looks affectionately at David. Cima shows plainly that Jonathan admires David and loves David, whereas David is oblivious of that affection and pursues his way, his road to ambition. He who is loved is the master, not he who loves, so David continues to walk on, whereas Jonathan has to look at the road and at David. The relations of the more powerful to the follower are thus clear to viewers.

The ‘David and Jonathan’ is an unpretentious scene without intricate composition. Cima did add picturesque elements to make the picture more interesting, but the attention of the viewers remain concentrated on the two boys. In the picture the two youths walk nonchalantly through a nice landscape. Cima painted an imaginary landscape. We see to the left an Italian castle on a high promontory and o the right high mountains and a fortified town in the plains. Between these two is a river, leading into a sea. The landscape forms a low ‘open V’ structure, but the composition remains inconspicuous as Cima simply added some view on the left and right of the boys, where he had some space to fill. He did not detail the terrain the boys are walking in, so that it is as if the boys wander in a part of desert sand and desert is somewhat like we know Palestine to be today.

Gianbattista Cima did know how to paint however: remark the details of the turrets of the castle, of the mountains, of the Medusa-like head of Goliath and the gentle aerial perspective with which he treats near and far colours. Cima used colours also remarkably well in the two boys. David is dressed in yellow and blue, which are complementary colours that contrast well together. Moreover the hues are deep and warm; the yellow is not shrill. Jonathan is dressed in green and red, equally complementary colours and equally colours of hues that contrast well. David wears red boots, in the colour of Jonathan’s cloak; Jonathan wears long, leather shoes of blue like the colour of David’s collar piece. Such details of sweet harmony, easy to discover, these little delicate touches of refinement made Cima popular.

Cima da Conegliano’s ‘David and Jonathan’ does not look really like a Venetian painting. It looks more like a Florentine limpid, clearly lined Florentine drawing that was filled in with colours after the drawing. It is only in the soft balancing of the darker tones of colour used on David and especially on Jonathan that we perceive something of Venetian colour and soft charm. Furthermore, the picture tells a story of two boys walking with their trophies and telling stories was also eminently Venetian.

The friendship of Jonathan for David was a very romantic theme after all and the figure of Jonathan in his integer love for David is very pure and touching since Jonathan confronted his father in this relation to David. Therefore it was a nice picture subject for Cima.

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