Friday, June 5, 2015

The Dream of Solomon, by Luca Giordano (1693)

The Dream of Solomon is a truly stunning picture by Luca Giordano, painted when the artist was nearing his 60th birthday.

For those who do not remember, Solomon was the king of Israel and the son of David.  It is believed that Solomon reigned from circa 970 to 931 BC.  He is best remembered, perhaps, for his vaunted wisdom, which was the result of a specific request for guidance by God.

Upon achieving the throne, Solomon wondered where best to build a temple to worship God.  He also sought to be a good, just and kindly ruler.  Upon thinking about it, he retired to bed in Gibeon and had a heavenly vision.  As it is recorded in the King James Bible, Solomon prayed, asking God to:  Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?

This request, so simple yet so profound, moved God.  The Bible says:

And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days. And if thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days.

Your correspondent simply loves this picture.  Not only is it painted with a master’s touch, but for its sumptuous and allegorical qualities.  As Solomon sleeps, God appears in his dream, surrounded by angels.  God shines the light of wisdom onto Solomon, and provides a vision of what will be Solomon’s temple. 

The Temple Solomon would build following his visitation would hold the Ark of the Covenant, and stand for 410 years before being destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II

Above Solomon is the vision of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, who will inspire Solomon in his judgements.  (Minerva is also the goddess of music, poetry, medicine, weaving, crafts and magic – such a one-stop shop.)  She represents a pre-Christian figure here; at her side is a lamb and a book, representing the eventually arrival of Jesus (the Lamb of God), and the holy book, the Bible.

This is such a rich picture, anticipating the abundance that would be later be found in rococo painting.  There are the angels surrounding God, his flowing robes, the delicately rendered blankets on Solomon.  The fantastically ornate bed upon which Solomon sleeps is a marvel in itself, particularly with the golden headboard in the figure of a faun near which rests his crown.  (Fauns would unconsciously impart wisdom – another pre-Christian echo.)  The muted colors promote the dreamy mood of the story, and there is a gauzy quality that provides a quality of a vision.

Interesting, too, are the use of yellows and blue to create light.  It is not a picture of many colors – yellow, blue, gold and orange – and yet it is bright and sensuous rather than drab and monotonous.  And despite the supine character of Solomon, Giordano still manages the dynamism of movement simply through his inventive composition.

Solomon himself is, frankly, beautiful, looking more like a reclining Apollo than anything else.  His features have an almost feminine cast of beauty (not unknown in Giordano’s other work), and combined with a beefy musculature create a figure both strong and sensitive.

It is, to this viewer, Giordano’s great masterpiece.

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