David Playing the Harp before Saul, 1530, Engraving, Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Proper 7, Art for June 24, 2012

Dutch artist, Lucas van Leyden, was an extraordinary printmaker; only Albrecht Durer, whom he met and admired, was better known in his time. Like Durer, he was a master engraver and he too used Biblical stories as subject matter in his works. The engraving, David Playing the Harp before Saul, gives us an example of Lucas’ exceptional technical skill.

In the First Book of Samuel (16:23) we are given an account of the calming affect David’s music had on King Saul: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”

In Lucas’ engraving, Saul is in a troubled state. David is standing to the left with fingers on the strings of his harp and the seated Saul is slumped in his throne and motionless. His face is passive, his eyes are turned aside unfocused, and he seems to be unable to understand or deal with his depression. There is nothing regal about him and in a different setting he could be overlooked as simply an old man. Following our initial study of David and Saul, our attention is shifted to two men standing behind the right arm of the throne. One gentleman, likely the court physician, is gesturing as they discuss Saul’s condition. Soldiers and guards with their halberd and spears are behind them in the shadows. The source of light, being from the front, leaves the background in darkness. This keeps our focus on the principal characters in the foreground and also adds to the sense of gloom overshadowing the scene.

In this composition, David, standing to the left with his harp, is the first to receive our attention. Our eyes move up to see his face and then we are led visually back down as we follow the edge of the harp and pause briefly at David’s spread fingers. From there the downward line of the harp curves to the right and leads us directly to Saul. The staff in Saul’s hand then points us back toward the center to the two men observing his despair. The back part of Saul’s throne keeps our focus contained and limits this composition to a tightly knit scene.


David Playing the Harp before Saul is an engraving on a copper plate. In terms of where ink is placed, an engraving is the opposite of a woodcut. In a woodcut (known as a relief print), ink is rolled onto the raised portion of a plate (a carved wooden surface). In a metal engraving the ink is carried below the surface of a plate. An engraver uses a small chisel-like hardened steel tool (called a burin) to carve shallow v-shaped grooves into a plate of softer metal (often copper). After a composition is completed to an artist’s satisfaction, ink is rubbed into the grooves and the surface of the plate is wiped clean; the ink however, being below the surface, remains in the grooves. A piece of slightly damp paper is laid over the plate and it is run through a press. As it goes through the press, the paper is forced against the plate and makes contact with the ink. When the paper is pulled off the plate, the ink is lifted out of the grooves. The print on the paper will be a mirror image of the composition. An artist must prepare the plate in reverse of the image seen in the print.

All editions pulled directly from a plate are “originals” and thousands could be printed potentially. Today, however, an artist makes usually a limited edition and then destroys or “cancels” the plate. The artist numbers and signs each edition by hand.


© 2012 Hovak Najarian

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