By July 20, 2008 Read More →

Bathsheba with the Letter from King David, Rembrandt (1606-1669).


Late one afternoon, David rose from his couch and strolled on the roof of the royal palace; and from the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful and the king sent someone to make inquiries about the woman. He reported, ‘She is the daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ (2 Samuel 11-2-3)

Classically, portraits of the David and Bathsheba story depict Bathsheba observed by David while she is bathing; Rembrandt has not captured that moment. Instead Bathsheba is preparing in her heart and mind for her fateful encounter with the king.

What mileage has Rembrandt gained by subtly shifting the timing of the scene?

The answer may lie in the central and defining feature of the painting; the letter which Bathsheba holds in her hand. In the biblical text there is no such letter. David summons her by messenger. The letter, which does appear in the Bible, is the writ of execution, which David sends with Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, as he is returned to the battlefield, sentenced by the king to fall by the sword. The letter, which Bathsheba holds, suggests the outer limits of her personal tragedy; the imminent betrayal of her husband will lead to his murder. Whereas the Bible describes Bathsheba as an object of desire, Rembrandt has transformed her into an individual in her own right, contemplatively brooding over her personal destiny.

Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy

Photo courtesy of The Louvre, Paris.

Posted in: Exodus

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