Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), Self Portrait, 1635

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, also known as Il Guercino, was an Italian Baroque painter and draftsman from Cento in the Emilia region. He was born in 1591 and died in 1666. His craftsmanship developed from naturalism to a baroque style. 

Stephen mentioned his painting of King David in one of his recent blogs and commented that the object in the hand of the subject, King David, looked to be a pen rather than a sceptre. He made the observation that King David had a reputation as being a poet as well as a ruler and that perhaps the artist had meant for the object to be interpreted either way. This was an astute observation as artists have creative license to interpret biblical characters and stories in any way they like. At least, this is the situation today but of course in times past artists were given a commission and created a work for wealthy patrons and institutions (this work, for example, was commissioned by the nobleman Giuseppe Locatelli of Cesena). It is interesting to note that the verse on the tablet may have been specifically requested for some purpose, although this is not clear. 

I was not able to find a great deal of information on the painting, perhaps due to the fact that it was in a private collection owned by the Spencer family (the current 9th Earl Spencer is the brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales) and has been housed at Spencer House and Althorp House since 1768 when it was acquired for the 1st Earl Spencer. Guercino was celebrated as one of the greatest painters of his day, and was in the luxurious position of being able to turn down offers by King Charles I of England, Louis XIII of France and possibly Philip IV of Spain.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino, King David, 1651

It is interesting to observe that the figure of King David is clothed in robes in the style of the artist’s day and that the colours are rich and opulent as is befitting a royal subject. It was Guercino’s style to use bold, saturated colouring, large-scale figures and dynamic compositions. Baroque style is decorative, luxurious and theatrical in its presentation. This painting of King David has been described as  ‘a mastery of tender and tranquil colour’. The bearded David, wearing a turban, crown and ermine-lined robe and holding a sceptre, sits on a carved throne by a draped table. With the single column in the background, this echoes a standard formula for royal and princely portraits of the Baroque era. Guercino also painted many biblical characters and depictions of stories in the bible including at least two paintings of ‘Susanna and the Elders,’ and many more. 

Susanna and the Elders, 1650

Upon reflection I am not sure about the interpretation of the character of King David. It could be that when Giuseppe Locatelli commissioned the work he may have wanted the artist to present the King as a man of letters whereas in reality he had the reputation of a fierce warrior (and all Guercino’s previous paintings of David presented him as a youthful warrior). As Stephen has written in a previous blog, David may not have been the person he is traditionally depicted as being. Solomon his son states, “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side” (1 Kings 5:3, 4). David was unable to build a temple for God because he had blood on his hands. So the artwork seems to be presenting David’s passive side, the spiritual aspect of his character that wrote many psalms and delighted in worship of the divine. 

It is fascinating to note in conclusion that symbolism in art can communicate a message or a concept or idea with virtually no words or with just a small amount of written text and that the viewer is free to interpret the work as he or she likes. Such is the beauty of biblical art down through the ages.