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Iconography

Saul and David shows two figures against a dark background. At left is King Saul, seated, wearing a colourful turban, holding a spear, and wiping his tears on a curtain; at right, the much younger David plays his harp as he kneels before Saul.

The story of Saul and David is recounted in the Old Testament (I Samuel 18:9–11). Saul, who suffered from melancholy, was comforted by young David’s harp-playing, but after David’s victory over the Philistines, Saul became jealous and hurled a spear at him. This painting depicts an unusual moment in the narrative, since most artists chose to portray the furious Saul ready to throw his spear, as Rembrandt had done in an earlier painting (also included in the exhibition), which in turn drew on a print by Lucas van Leyden.

At some point in the past, the figures of Saul and David were cut apart and rejoined, and a large piece of canvas was added above the head of David. The area between the figures is very worn, which suggests that something is missing from the composition. There are indications that the painting may have originally included a third figure peeping out from behind the curtain. Two other works of art, both of which are included in the exhibition, seem to confirm this theory. A drawing attributed to the Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost by the drawing expert Peter Schatborn shows a similar composition in reverse. Saul is seated on a platform with a curtain behind him; David, kneeling, plays the harp at his feet; and in the centre is a figure wearing a turban and a floor-length garment. Moreover, in 1682, Arent de Gelder, another pupil of Rembrandt, also painted a version of the story in which a barely detectable figure peeps out from behind a curtain

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