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North French Miscellany

This 13th-century French manuscript shows a popular contemporary subject in both Christian and Jewish art: King David playing his harp. He is traditionally the author of the Psalms, which were to be sung with musical accompaniment. Though it is a Hebrew manuscript, this was evidently illuminated by Christian artists.

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King David

North French Miscellany, Northern France, c.1278-98. David playing the harp
BL Add. MS 11639, f. 117v
Copyright © The British Library Board

Who was King David?

David was the second king of the kingdom of Israel around three thousand years ago. He was known as a great warrior, and defeated the giant Goliath in a legendary battle early in his career. David was also recognised as a talented musician (I Samuel 16: 17; II Samuel 23: 1) and is traditionally credited with the authorship of the Book of Psalms. One of his most familiar is Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd". The Dead Sea Scrolls credit David with having composed over 4,000 psalms in all.

As king he established a large empire, but incurred divine displeasure when he committed adultery (getting Uriah's wife Bathsheba pregnant) and murder (ordering Uriah to be killed). The baby died soon after birth. He repented however, and reigned over Israel for 40 years.

David is important in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims consider him a Prophet, and that therefore he cannot have committed adultery or murder. Jesus was a descendant of David, 28 generations later.

Michelangelo's 16th-century sculpture David, carved from a single block of marble, portrays the young king at the point he decides to do battle with Goliath. The statue, at 5.2m, is considerably taller than Goliath, who was said to be 2.9m. Michelangelo's David is uncircumcised.

What does the picture show?

King David is a popular subject in Christian and Jewish art, and appears in countless medieval illuminated manuscripts as a shepherd, warrior, writer and in various other guises. In the Psalter that belonged to King Henry VIII of England, there is a portrait of Henry himself posing as David.

In this image David is shown crowned, wearing a bright red cloak lined with royal ermine. He is seated cross-legged in a golden chair playing the harp. The biblical miniatures in this Hebrew manuscript were apparently created by Christian illuminators belonging to three important 13th-century Parisian workshops. Perhaps they were inspired by imagery in the Bibles moralisées of France of the period: 'picture-book bibles', which contained sumptuously illustrated versions of the scriptures' stories with the text serving as little more than captioning.

What sort of harp did David actually play?

The instrument David played is referred to in the Hebrew Bible as a 'kinnor'. The word is usually translated as 'harp', but it was actually a lyre (a member of the zither family).

Modern scholarship suggests that David played the so-called 'thin lyre'. This instrument had four to eight gut strings and was usually played with a plectrum in a similar manner to the way a modern guitar is strummed. However, according to Samuel I 16:23, "David took an harp, and played with his hand", which may suggest that David's technique was more advanced, and involved plucking with individual fingers harpist-fashion.