Art, women of the bible

Bathsheba

Who was this woman who was the wife of a warrior in the service of King David and became a royal adviser and received the title of Queen Mother?

In the Bible

According to the Bible, Bathsheba was a beautiful, clever and unscrupulous woman. She was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier of King David’s army. One day, while the king was walking on the roof of his palace, he saw Bathsheba bating. Since that moment she was desired by him and then became pregnant to him. In the Bible, it is not explicitly whether she consented to sex.

David and Bathsheba by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526) –
Gemäldegalerie

The king tried to convinced Uriah to have sex with his wife and think that the child was his. But Uriah denied to violate the ancient rule applying to warriors in active service. After several efforts, King David ordered that Uriah should be placed on the front lines of the battle, where he would be more like to die. After Uriah’s death, the king married Bathsheba.

Their first child got very ill and died few days after the birth without a name. What was considered by the king as a punishment for his sins. Later, Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon, who was David successor even though David had another son, older and more popular than Salomon, who expected to be the new king. Bathsheba and her advisor manoeuvred to secure the throne to Salomon, who once a king honoured his mother and took her as his personal adviser. She participated in the court intrigues and occupied, may the most prestigious position a woman could hold, Queen Mother. mother and son organized the death of Salomon’s older brother, the one wo was the popular choice to succeed King David.

What is true in this story?

But there are many questions that we cannot find the answer in the texts of the Bible. And that prevent us from knowing the real Bathsheba.

  • Did she conceal to sex with David? Had she the option to deny?
  • Did she know that the king was arranging the murderer of her husband?
  • Did she mourn for the death of Uriah? Or it was faked?

According to some sources her story was edited during the reign of Solomon by court story-tellers. That is one of the reasons why it is impossible to know the real story. We only can be sure of two things: what we know about her is probably what was of general knowledge that couldn’t be changed; and what she wanted to be known.

Bathsheba receiving David’s letter by Jan Steen (1656-60) – Private Collection

Other interesting question is related to the name of her son with David “Solomon” which means “his replacement” but it is difficult to know if it refers to the replacement of the first baby who died after few days or if it’s a reference to her murdered husband. It’s a very ambiguous point.  

In Art

The story of Bathsheba was a popular subject from the Renaissance onwards. Sometimes she appears with her maids or with the messengers of the King, other times King David is shown on the roof of his palace. And the story of Bathsheba is very often associated to the “Power of Women” topos, which was a medieval and Renaissance artistic and literary topos that showed heroic or wise men dominated by women.

Bathsheba by Jean-León Gérôme (1889)

It is not a surprise that most of the artists have chose the moment of Bathsheba’s bath to depict. Because it gave them the opportunity to paint the nude female body, as we could see in the post of Susanna and the elders. But surprisingly, I did find some depictions in which there are no nudity, even though it refers to the bath moment as in the painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Probably the most famous of these depictions is the one by Rembrandt, in this painting Bathsheba is accompanied only by her servant. Another painting that surprised me was the one by Jan Steen, the artist chose to depict the moment when Bathsheba receives the letter of the King David.

Bathsheba bathing by Rembrandt (1654) – Musée du Louvre

The only work of a woman artist on this subject that I have found is this painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. In it, Bathsheba appears bathing and in the company of three maids. In the background, we can see King David watching the scene from his palace.

Bathsheba bathing by Artemisia Gentileschi (1645-50) – Neues Palais in Postdam

Do you know any other depiction of this theme created by a woman?

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