Hans Memling (1443/40–1494) »Bathsheba at her Bath, King David and a Young Boy«

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Hans Memling (1443/40–1494)
»Bathsheba at her Bath, King David and a Young Boy«

c. 1485, Tempera and oil on oak

According to the biblical tale, King David glimpsed the bathing Bathsheba from the roof of his palace. Knowing that she was married to Urias, he nevertheless called her to him. He then ordered Urias sent into battle on the front during the siege of Rabba. When David’s hope was fulfilled and Urias killed, the king took Bathsheba as his rightful bride. Although David felt regret (according to the words of parable spoken by the Prophet Nathan) at his own transgression, he was nevertheless punished with the death of his illegitimate son shortly after birth. The marriage produced a second son, Salomon, who would later become king.

The scene depicted in the window frame is a 17th-century addition. The original corner section, only recently acquired, is an autonomous half-figure representation of David and a younger boy. Bathsheba is seen leaving the baldachincrowned bath enclosure in one of the sparsely but preciously decorated anterooms outside her sleeping chamber. A maid-in-waiting helps her into a white, folded coat. The hair twisted into a turban and the drops of water on her skin bear witness to the artist’s fine powers of observation yet do not detract from the ideal quality of the depicted figure.

There is no sensuality in the life-sized nude figure. Its elongated proportions, in keeping with the Gothic ideal of feminine beauty, correspond to the narrow pictorial format. The sense of spatial depth achieved through the stepped arrangement of furnishings is also integrated into the painting’s vertical structure. The guiding aesthetic principle in this painting is the interplay of lines through which the composition derives its unity. The animated facial expressions, rendered with great sensitivity to physiognomic nuances, bear witness to Memling’s great skill as a portraitist. [ EW ]

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