Large plate with the Battle of David and Goliath, 629–30, The Met, New York

A recent post showed a silver plate illustrating David’s confrontation with Eliab. In this blog post, the tenth I have written, I would like to explore the medium of silver in the form of decorative plates of the Byzantine era known as the David plates. These are a set of nine silver plates, in three sizes, stamped between 613 and 630 AD. The plates were created in Constantinople and depict scenes from the life of the Hebrew king David, and associated with the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610 – 641). They were discovered in northern Cyprus in 1902 and were classified as early Byzantine secular art. Six plates were smuggled out of Cyprus and sold whilst three were confiscated by the authorities and held at the Museum of Antiquities in Nicosia. The six that were sold were bought by J. Pierpont Morgan whose descendants gave them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1917 where they remain.

I would like to speculate on the classification of the plates as secular art. They were not classified as biblical art which puzzles me. The classification may refer to their use rather than their subject. The plates cover incidents in the life of David from the time that the prophet Samuel anointed him to the time that he married Saul’s daughter. The plates are amongst the most ancient components of Byzantine art and may be the earliest surviving example of the use of biblical scenes for such displays. There has been speculation by artists and intellects about some of the inaccuracies in the manuscripts of the story of David and thus the interpretation of the plates. Stephen has mentioned in past blogs about discrepancies and contradictions in the historical text regarding the story of David. It has been posed that stories of David in the Old Testament were very effective propaganda regarding his life and achievements. So effective were the stories circulating about him that the house of David eclipsed the house of Saul in the kingly line in Israel and thus even in the sixth and seventh centuries we have silver plates cast by a Byzantine king who wanted to elevate his victories alongside David’s. Regarding the classification, could it be that scholars accept the stories of David as perhaps myths, similar to King Arthur and the round table in the United Kingdom, or Camelot. Myths usually contain a shred of truth but are overshadowed by tall tales and elaboration and exaggeration. Sometimes the stories are just not true. The plates though, attest to the power of the stories of David that were preserved down through the centuries.

The silver plates were commissioned as one large plate (above), four medium plates and four small plates. It is thought that Heraclius commissioned the plates to commemorate himself as the new David, a king who defeated the Sasanian Empire (628-629). The David plates are of high quality which indicates the workshops of the palace in Constantinople which were known for specific luxury goods. The plates have control stamps to assure the quality of the silver used. Commenting on the form, the plates are similar, with rolled rims and concave surfaces. They could have been used as a display at banquets or for serving the food at great feasts at the palace in Constantinople. They would have been used as an effective tool for promoting the king Heraclius as a type of David who put his enemies under his feet. In those days there was no Facebook or Instagram, TV or radio. The chosen message that the king wished to send to the people had to be delivered in a more ancient form or medium, in this case silver.

Whether you believe in the historical accuracy of the David stories or not, the David plates are a beautifully preserved example of Biblical Art or should I say secular art and in a different medium to canvas, in this case silver. In an upcoming post I may refer to Michelangelo’s David, a very famous statue and an example of another artistic variant, sculpture.