web analytics
March 3, 2015 / 12 Adar , 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

Pieter Lastman’s David And Uriah Paintings

Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker

March 15 – August 02, 2009

The Jewish Museum

1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, New York



In one of the most complex and controversial of biblical narratives, the book of 2 Samuel recounts an almost operatic moment in which Uriah the Hittite, husband of Batsheva, was instructed by King David to unknowingly carry his own death sentence to the Jewish general Yoav (Joab). Had Uriah betrayed his king’s confidence and opened the letter, he could have surely have escaped death.


One can almost sense this nuance in a painting by the 16th-17th century Dutch painter (and Rembrandt’s and Jan Lievens’ teacher) Pieter Pietersz Lastman titled “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” The painting is part of an exhibit at The Jewish Museum of works by many artists once owned by Dutch, Jewish collector Jacques Goudstikker, whose works were looted by the Nazis.



Pieter Pietersz Lastman (ca. 1583-1633). “David gives Uriah a Letter for Joab.” 1619.

Oil on panel. Private collection. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, N.Y.



Lastman portrays David sitting on his throne clad in a blue-purple robe and red cape and bearing a golden scepter. Like many 17th century Dutch paintings, Lastman’s work should not be “read” simply on a surface level. Ironically, a dog, the symbol of fidelity in art, stands between David and Uriah, and two pillars, typically symbolic of fortitude, flank the anything-but-confident David on both sides. Additionally, a young boy, who seems most interested in the scepter, stands on the king’s left, and might represent Absalom, who later rebelled against his father, seeking to steal the kingdom from Solomon. Uriah kneels before David with his helmet at his feet, and about a dozen soldiers appear in the background, which contains a Christian propagandist element: a depiction of St. Peter’s Basilica, rumored to contain pillars from Solomon’s Temple. By casting an Old Testament scene in Vatican City (which of course did not exist in David’s era), the Catholic Lastman was suggesting that the episode from the Jewish bible also bore significance to Catholics.



Pieter Pietersz Lastman. “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah.” 1611. Oil on oak panel. Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts.



The letter David holds in his right hand – in a pouch bound with the king’s seal – is exactly the same sort Lastman had depicted eight years earlier in “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Detroit version includes writing on the outside of the letter (presumably by David’s hand), which the later version lacks. (Incidentally, a letter written and sealed by a royal hand might be relevant in interpreting verses like Esther 3:12, 8:8, and 8:10, and 1 Kings 21:8, and Daniel 6:18). The boy who sits on the king’s right in the Detroit version might be the same one on his left in the later version, though he looks at David’s crown rather than his scepter. Though he wears armor, Uriah is dressed in the contemporary Dutch fashion (with a feathered hat replacing the helmet) in the Detroit version, while the later Uriah looks to be dressed in a more “biblical” fashion, though both in fact wear the same tan robe with brown stripes at the hem. St. Peter’s also appears in the Detroit painting, but it is accompanied by a fountain with a pagan river god pouring water. Another difference is that the Detroit David is a much older man than his peer in the other work. 


It is difficult to locate Lastman’s two depictions of David and Uriah in a larger artistic tradition, because there was not much of a precedent for the scene. Jean Colombe’s “David entrusts a letter to Uriah” from the “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (1485-9) shows an entirely different composition: David in gold sitting in the foreground, Uriah, clad in blue, kneeling behind, in what appears to be a medieval castle, and two court advisors. The illumination accompanies the text of Psalm 50 (in the Greek numbering, 51 in Jewish counts), which begins, “A song to David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, when he went to Bathsheba.” On the throne, Colombe painted a jester carrying a stick and wearing animal ears, perhaps a reference to 1 Samuel 21, where David impersonated an insane person to evade capture at Gath.



French Gothic. Detail: “David and Bathsheba.” C. 1250. Pierpont Morgan Library.



The 1490 “David, accompanied by Bathsheba, gives Uriah a letter for Joab” by the Master of Cornelis Croesinck, also known as the “Master of the Dark Eyes,” also does not seem to have captured Lastman’s attention. The work, which is at the Hague, mysteriously adds Bathsheba to the scene standing behind David as he hands the letter to Uriah. This bold interpretive move, which makes little sense in the context of the larger story, is also unprecedented. Other depictions of Uriah that would have been available to Lastman feature Uriah’s death rather than his receiving of the letter (a 1511 “Killing of Uriah” by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, and a c. 1430 “Uriah is killed in the battle before the city of Rabbah” by Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, also in the Hague).


For the most part, other depictions feature a medieval knight kneeling before David , some include a letter, which often looks more like a loaf of bread than a letter (most notably a c. 1500 illumination from a Book of Hours and a 13th century illumination from “Image du Monde”), but most do not. “A 13th century illumination from a Psalter and Book of Hours” is the only one to show a letter bearing a dangling seal that resembles Lastman’s works, and might have served as a model for the piece. A supposed “David and Uriah” is attributed to Rembrandt in the collection of the Hermitage dated 1665, but the Hermitage calls the scene “Haman Recognizes His Fate,” and even though Rembrandt studied with Lastman, he does not seem to have copied Lastman’s motif.



Psalter and Book of Hours. Ms. 730, fol. 109v. Detail: “David sends Uriah to Joab.”

13th century. Pierpont Morgan Library.



But where Lastman’s predecessors tended not to show the Uriah scene altogether and when they did depict David and Uriah, they tended to opt for stylized portraits, Lastman’s David looks worried or morally torn, in short, more human. This is surely a mode of biblical interpretation that Lastman passed along to Rembrandt, evidenced by the latter’s many naturalistic depictions of biblical characters.


Many viewers will surely find the Jewish Museum show fascinating for historical reasons, and will be interested in the back-story of the return of looted art. But examining the larger context of even one of the works shows what a tragedy it would be for the public to not have access to viewing them.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Pieter Lastman’s David And Uriah Paintings”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addresses a joint session of the US Congress on March 3, 2015.
‘Alliance Between Israel & US Must Always Remain Above Politics’
Latest Sections Stories

There is a point that many parenting books miss: children do more for us than we do for them.

Brigitte Gabriel

Brigitte was a nine-year-old girl when Islamic militants launched an assault on a Lebanese military base and destroyed her home.


The husband needs to make some changes!

Purim is a fantastic time for fantasies, so I hope you won’t mind my fantasizing about how easy life would be if kids would prefer healthy cuisine over sweets. Imagine waking up to the call of “Mommy, when will my oatmeal be ready?”… As you rush to ladle out the hot unsweetened cereal, you rub […]

‘Double Gold’ awarded to 2012 Yarden Heights wine & 2011 Yarden Merlot Kela Single Vineyard.

One should not give the money before Purim morning or after sunset.

The mishloach manos of times gone by were sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate, but the main focus was on the preparation of the delicious food they contained.

One of the earliest special Purims we have on record was celebrated by the Jews of Granada and Shmuel HaNagid, the eleventh-century rav, poet, soldier and statesman, and one of the most influential Jews in Muslim Spain.

Jews, wake up! Stop educating the world and start educating yourselves.

The lessons conform to the sensitivities and needs of the Orthodox community…

The program took on special significance as it marked not only the first anniversary of Rebbetzin Kudan’s levayah but also the 27th yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, a”h.

It was only in the reign of George III (1760-1820) that Jews became socially acceptable in Britain, and Nathan became music master to Princess Charlotte and musical librarian to King George IV.

It captures the love of the Jewish soul as only Shlomo Hamelech could portray it – and as only Rabbi Miller could explain it.

Erudite and academic, drawing from ancient and modern sources, the book can be discussed at the Shabbos table as well as in kollel.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/pieter-lastmans-david-and-uriah-paintings/2009/06/10/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: