Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Take a letter, Uriah

The painting to your right is one of Rem-brandt's finest, and that means it is one of the most splendid and moving depictions of tragic emotion ever rendered by human hands.

It also illustrates one of the great proto-crime stories, of the kind that I've discussed before and asked readers to suggest more of. The painting is Bathsheba at Her Bath, and it depicts the story from 2 Samuel, Chapter 11, wherein King David sees Bathsheba bathing, is smitten, and does what it takes to get the woman he loves, even if it means — murder.

Here, Bathsheba has just received the king's summons, and you can tell from her face, her lowered head, and the fateful letter she holds how this one is going to turn out. In case you need to brush up on your biblical knowledge, the story is here. David, having made Bathsheba pregnant, summons her husband from battle and tries to send him home, to sleep with Bathsheba and thereby conceal David's own misdeed (the story, of course, takes place before the advent of DNA testing.) But the loyal Uriah refuses the comforts of home while his brother soldiers are still in the field.

David then sends him back to battle with a letter to the commander Joab ordering Joab to place Uriah in harm's way and thus ensure his death. He dies, Bathsheba mourns, she marries David and gives birth to his son.

What makes this a proto-crime story, other than David's treacherous act? The story's chillingly laconic kicker. Here's the chapter's second-to-last sentence:

"And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son."

Domestic bliss? Not so fast. Here's the last sentence: "But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD." A man sins, tries to escape his predicament, and only gets himself in deeper. Driven to killing, he is brought low as a consequence of his own acts.

And God said, let there be noir.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

(Image of Bathsheba at Her Bath from
Mark Harden's Artchive)

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Blogger Heather said...

Excellent post. (former Art History Major here)


January 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Incidentally, the painting has another crime-story connection. It is stolen in Entrapment, a 1999 movie starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. These being the times they are, in the movie, the painting was not in public hands at the Louvre, but in a businessman's skyscraper office.

January 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! And timely, too. My Bible as Lit class just started today. I'll have to direct my Prof over here.


January 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Nikki. I get a kick out the possibility of being mentioned in a Bible class.

It's nice to think of readers turning to the Bible for thrills and suspense. But why not? The thought might offend certain among the devout, but the Bible is full of stories that are thrilling, exciting and human, like the Greek classics or Shakespeare. (Your prof might also be interested in the stories of Susannah and the Elders and Bel and the Dragon, which some branches of Christianity include in the Book of Daniel.)

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

First murder in recorded history, too. Cain and Abel, anyone?

January 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You brought that up earlier, then dismissed your own suggestion because of a lack of suspects. But that could make a good, atmospheric crime tale, if not a standard whodunnit.

January 23, 2008  

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