The subject is taken from second Book of Samuel (11: 2-17). From the roof of his palace King David sees a beautiful woman bathing. This was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of David's generals. She was brought before the King, who seduced her and made her pregnant. Her then inconvenient husband was despatched to the front line in battle, where he inevitably met his end, and David and Bathsheba were married. The child of their union, however, survived only a few days, and David subsequently did penance. Despite David's morally indefensible behaviour, the story was regarded by the medieval church as a typological prefiguration of Christ (David) and the Church (Bathsheba).
The meeting of David and Bathsheba was clearly a favourite pictorial theme in the Cranach workshop, and was treated by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his sons on a number of occasions and in a variety of media. The present work occupies a position of particular interest in the development of this theme. The earliest surviving example is a woodcut made for Luther's translation of the Old Testament and published in 1524 (fig. 1). In this Cranach established his basic design which would serve as the basis for later versions: the King sits in his palace, which is surrounded by a small stream or moat, beside which Bathsheba sits with her attendants, one of whom holds her slippers while another washes her feet. The first painted version of the subject dates from 1526 (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, fig. 2), and in this, as in all subsequent versions, David is moved to the roof of his palace, strumming upon his harp.1 The Berlin painting is closely related to another woodcut, which was published in Martin Luther's Catechism of 1529, but which was probably designed in collaboration with Philip Melanchthon as early as 1527.2 This is then followed by a drawing in brown ink and wash, today in Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett (fig. 3), which Schade has most recently dated to around 1526.3 Although such a dating would separate the drawing from the present work by some eight years, there can be little doubt that the two are very similar. The figures of the standing lady-in-waiting on the extreme right of the composition, for example, and that of Bathsheba, with her eyes raised towards the king, both wearing large feathered hats, are the same in both pictures. The position of the maidservant washing Bathsheba's feet is, however, slightly different, and may have been more influenced by the corresponding figure in the Berlin painting. Recent infra-red reflectographs, taken shortly after the 1980 sale at the Schweizerisches Kunstinstitut, show that the execution of the panel at times varied from the preliminary underdrawing (fig. 4).
Three further versions in the development of the composition date, like the present painting, from the 1530s. These are a horizontal panel in Dresden, Gemäldegalerie (fig. 5),4 a pen and ink drawing in Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste (fig. 6),5 and an upright painting in Berlin, Stiftung Preussische Schlosser und Gärten.6 All of these are now generally considered by scholars to be the work of Lucas Cranach the Younger and dated to around 1537-40. The autograph status of the present work, which lies between the two groups, has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Dieter Koepplin, who in 1981 considered this painting to be the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, is now, following first hand inspection of the original, more inclined to view it as having been painted in the main by Lucas Cranach the Elder with the participation of his son Lucas. Werner Schade, however (private communication March 2008), has most recently suggested that this panel may be the work of his elder brother Hans Cranach (c.1513-1537). He compares specifically, for example, the head of the girl washing Bathsheba's feet to that of the girl on the left of Hans Cranach's signed painting of Hercules at the court of Omphale of 1537, now in the Thyssen Collection in Madrid.7 However, as this remains one of only two extant works that can securely be attributed to Hans before his early death, further additions to his oeuvre must remain tentative.8 Dr. Ludwig Meyer has also kindly suggested that, in his opinion formed on the basis of photographs, the present picture is the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop.
The subject of David and Bathsheba has long been linked with Lucas Cranach's paintings on the theme of Weibermacht or the power of women, such as Hercules and Omphale or Samson and Delilah. Cranach's intended meaning may originally have been rather simpler. His second woodcut of this subject, was published in Luther's Catechism of 1529 as an illustration of the Tenth Commandment: 'Thy shall not covet thy neighbour's wife'. In contrast with many of Cranach's overtly sensual depictions of the naked female form, Bathsheba is here shown fully clothed, surrounded by her ladies-in-waiting and the very epitome of respectability, and it is this most straightforward interpretation of the subject that may have been intended.
1. Exhibited Frankfurt and London, 2007-8, Cranach, no. 88.
2. Reproduced in D. Koepplin and T. Falk, Lukas Cranach. Gemälde, Zeichnungen,Druckgraphik, Basel and Stuttgart 1976, vol. II, p. 579, fig. 298.
3. Reproduced in K. Kolb, Cranach. Gemälde aus Dresden, Dresden 2005, p. 226, fig. 110.
4. K. Kolb, op. cit., 2005, pp. 224-29, no. 5.
5. Idem., p. 227, reproduced fig. 112.
6. Friedländer and Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London 1978, p. 140, no. 357f.
7. I. Lübbeke, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Early German painting 1350-1550, London 1991, p. 182, no. 41, reproduced.
8. The other is a Portrait of a man, signed and dated 1534, also in the Thyssen-Collection in Madrid (Lubbeke, op. cit., p. 178, no. 40).
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