Published July 16, 2009
King David is mum and pointing at his tongue. He has promised to speak no evil word, writing “I will bridle my mouth, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” And “the wicked” are in very corporeal attendance. While an angel hovers near the king’s head with a concerned look, a furry devil is clutching urgently at his leg.
That tableau, a 13th-century French artist’s fanciful interpretation of Psalm 39, is just one of the arresting images in a small but striking show called “Temptation and Salvation: The Psalms of King David,” which opened June 9 at Los Angeles’ Getty Center.
Through just 21 objects, the exhibit presents a marvelous 400-year “snapshot” of medieval Christianity as it wrestled the ancient Jewish songs – and the soap-opera saga of King David that had become attached to them – into an acceptable Christian understanding.
In recent years, the museum has enjoyed success with specific Christian themes, including an exhibit last year on images of Christ through the ages. The museum reached out to religious communities for that show, and Thomas Kren, Getty’s senior curator for manuscripts, says, “We see great value in connecting with people of faith.”
For its next show, Kren’s staff settled on the Psalms. What they produced is a small show that nonetheless offers a broad religious panorama.
Early church theologians like St. Augustine fell in love with the Psalms – he devoted more than 200 sermons to them – and painstakingly worked out a Christian dimension that found in them prophecies of the Christ or the voice of the crucified Messiah himself.
But in a largely illiterate culture, pictorial representations were just as important. What the Getty show reveals, through images great and small, is the development of that impulse as Christian art itself was developing.
The illustrations, in various hand-painted media, date from the 12th to the 16th century and deal exclusively with the image of King David. Although best known for his work with a slingshot, the biblical David went on to become the great warrior, bard, king of Israel – and the subject of one of the Bible’s juiciest tabloid scandals: spying a naked Bathsheba in the tub, seducing and impregnating her, and then arranging for her husband to be killed in battle.
Jews had their own means of reconciling David’s bad-boy behavior with his ongoing standing as God’s beloved. One was using the Psalms as a kind of internal monologue, including their wrenchingly beautiful songs of penance (Psalm 51 is the classic example).
For early Christians, David was seen as a connection to Christ in a variety of powerful ways; the Gospel of Matthew, for example, lists David as one of Jesus’ ancestors, and St. Luke locates his birth in Jerusalem, “the city of David.” As Christianity reconceived the Jewish Bible as the “Old Testament,” Kren explains, believers treated God’s redemption of David’s sins as prophetic of Christ’s redemption of all humanity.
“Temptation and Salvation” runs through Aug. 16 at The Getty Center in Los Angeles.
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