Saturday, April 21, 2018

After God's Own Heart

David, king of Israel, psalmist, and ancestor of Jesus, lived a well-documented life. The Bible records events in his life from his teenage years to his old age. Yet his story is not one of pure devotion and service to the Lord. Scripture records many instances of David’s deep sin and extensive failings. Yet God calls David a man after God’s own heart. This collection of paintings examining David’s life show both how stunning this declaration by God is, as well as God’s grace and intervention in his life.
This is the story of David’s life, looking at major events such as his slaying of Goliath, his escape from Saul, and his children’s wicked and scandalous behavior. It shows his successes and major failings, as well as his reaction to those failings. It provokes wonder at how God could give him such an important place in the history of salvation. The final painting by Lorenzo Monaco depicts him reflecting on his life, perhaps composing a psalm. This curation gives a glimpse into more than just David’s life. Christians recognize their own victories as well as their damning sins. Like David, we need to look back at our lives, reflecting upon the undeserved grace of God.

David with the Head of Goliath, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1625, oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome.

Bernini depicts David in his youth, just after his victory over Goliath. The coarse face of Goliath’s severed head contrasts heavily with David’s smooth, hairless face and body. The dramatic light coming from over his shoulder hints to us a compelling future in store for this youngster; one wrought with joy and victory, but also pain and loss. Rather than basking in his glorious rescue of the Israelites, he seeks to comprehend what lies ahead; what God will do next.

Jonathan’s Token to David, Frederic Leighton, 1868, oil on canvas, Minneapolis Institute of Art.

David is not physically present in this scene, but he is the subject of this painting. Jonathan looks off into the distance as he pulls an arrow out from his quiver. He is preparing to send a message to David, his closest friend, who must hide from Saul. The servant boy is clueless to the larger picture and the significance of what is going on. Leighton chooses to depict Jonathan as emotionless at this moment in the narrative, but we know that both he and David will shed many tears when they must part ways forever.

David and Uriah, Rembrandt, 1665, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

At this point in the narrative, David is king of Israel, and he has already committed adultery with Bathsheba. Now, we see him sending Uriah to his death in order to cover up his wickedness. David’s facial expression shows no remorse and Uriah, with hand over heart seems to sense his imminent doom. The dark color scheme contributes further to this sense of hopelessness. How can such a sinner rule over Israel, God’s chosen people? How can God call David a man after His own heart? Rembrandt does not give us the answers in this painting, but we know this is not the end of the story.

Absalom and Tamar, Guercino, 1644-1666, oil on canvas, Tatton Park, Cheshire.

Depicted here is Absalom observing his sister Tamar’s pregnancy. She has been raped by their brother Amnon, beginning a string of events that nearly lead to David losing the throne. Her shame is evident in her downward glance. Absalom’s pensive expression does not show much sympathy, but the hand on his sword shows his desire for vengeance. Two years later, he would arrange the murder of Amnon. Though David deeply loved his children, he did not raise them as unto the Lord. His failure to react appropriately to this situation would lead to the loss of more than one son. This shows yet another of David’s massive and consequential failures, plaguing what was supposed to be the golden age of Israel.

David, Frederic Leighton, 1865, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Leighton depicts an older, grief-stricken David in this painting. His crown, discarded at his feet, as well as his closed fists, and outward gaze suggest a recent loss, most likely that of his son Absalom. His dark robes indicate mourning and his dark hair and beard stand out against the background of white clouds. The flaxen sky in the upper right corner seems to be hopeful, perhaps the presence of God even in this dark circumstance. David has no choice but to cry out to the Lord in the midst of his suffering.

David, Lorenzo Monaco, 1408-1410, tempera on wood, gold ground, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 65.14.4.

Lorenzo Monaco’s David is more stylized and he does not render him in the middle of a major event from the biblical narrative. David seems to be deep in reflection, unconcerned with his plain surroundings, focused on his past. Perhaps he is composing a psalm, as the harp in his lap suggests. Monaco depicts him as a holy man, worthy of a halo and gold-leaf background. How can David be acceptable before God? We have already seen his many failings: murder, adultery, deceit. Maybe, in this moment, in reflection on his life, he recognizes God’s grace, and how undeserving he really his. Maybe the only proper response in the face of such grace is a psalm of praise and adoration. 

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