One reading of the story of David and Bathsheba depicts their encounter as a tryst between consenting adults or perhaps even as the result of Bathsheba’s plan to seduce David. Much of the history of art supports this reading. A nude or partially nude Bathsheba proves too much of a temptation for King David, who watches her from his palace. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has called this interpretation into question. Bathsheba is not a willing participant in an affair, much less a seductive femme fatale; rather, she is as an unwilling victim of unwelcome sexual advances and assault. Details of the text support this reading. Although it is spring and time for kings to go to war, David has chosen to remain behind (1 Sam. 11:1), a fact unknown to Bathsheba. David is in control. He is the subject of most of the verbs: David inquires about Bathsheba, he sends for her and “lays with her.” Rembrandt’s Bathsheba reflects the traditional reading, while also subtly challenging it. David (often shown watching from a tower or roof in earlier art) is absent from the scene, but Bathsheba is still objectified: David’s gaze has been replaced by the voyeuristic viewer. But Bathsheba holds a letter from the king (a detail missing from the biblical account), presumably demanding her presence at his palace. As a servant dries her feet, Bathsheba muses over the king’s “request.” He is, after all, the king, and what choice does Bathsheba have?
Caravaggio (1571–1610) depicted the beheading of St. John the Baptist for the oratory chapel dedicated to the same subject in the Cathedral of St. John in Valletta on the island of Malta. Malta was the military outpost of the Roman Catholic faith that was entrusted to the Knights of St. John. After being exiled from Rome, Caravaggio fled to Malta in June 1607 in the hopes of receiving a papal pardon and of becoming a knight himself. The Knights commissioned Caravaggio’s largest painting (over 16 feet wide)—and the only work that bears his signature—to celebrate the feast day of their patron saint. John lies on the floor like an animal about to be slaughtered. The woolly hooves of his hair shirt are visible under the red cloth. The executioner has already killed John with his sword (located on the ground to the left of the body) and now prepares to slice off his head with a small knife. The jailer and an old woman witness the event. A servant girl, not to be mistaken for Salome, is identifiable by her apron and dress and holds a basket in which to bring the head back to Herod. Two prisoners have front-row seats at the gruesome event.
May 18, 2015
Art selection and commentary by Heidi J. Hornik, who teaches in the art departmentat Baylor University, and Mikeal C. Parsons, who teaches in the school’s religion department.
Holy Trinity was executed around 1426–27 and is located in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fresco was commissioned as a funerary monument by the Lenzi family, and two members of the family are depicted kneeling in prayer on either side of the cross, below Mary and the Beloved Disciple. The upper part of the fresco depicts God the Father supporting the arms of the crucified Son. Between the Father’s beard and Jesus’ head is the white, dovelike form of the Holy Spirit, uniting Father and Son. Masaccio is following a well-known artistic convention of associating the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16) with a crucifixion scene as a way of reflecting the profound mystery of the Trinity. While many detractors of Christianity have pointed to the crucifixion as evidence of the absurdity of the Trinity, Masaccio claims it is in this very same moment that the essential unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is most clearly revealed. Here there is no depiction of God turning his back on his Son. Rather, here is a loving Father, who in the mystery of the Trinity is at one with the Son and the Spirit and suffers on the believer’s behalf.
The image of the ascension in the illustrated Rabbula Syriac Gospels is one of the earliest depictions of the scene on parchment (586 CE) and sets the iconography for centuries to come. The figure of Christ is positioned in a mandorla (almond-shaped frame) with his right hand in a blessing gesture and his left holding a scroll. Flanked by angels, he is bearded and wears a golden nimbus. There is a clear distinction between this heavenly realm and those figures who remain on earth. Center stage in the earthly realm belongs to Mary, who stands directly beneath the mandorla of Christ. Her hands are open in exaltation and direct the viewer to the angels standing beside her. While Mary is not explicitly mentioned by Luke as being present at the ascension, she is introduced immediately thereafter (Acts 1:14). Her growing importance in the theological tradition had been signaled by her designation as Theotokos, “Mother of God,” at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, and she becomes more prominent in both literary and visual presentations.