(b. ca. 1472, Oostzan, d. 1533, Amsterdam)

Saul and the Witch of Endor

Oil on panel, 88,3 x 123 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Seventeenth-century artists often made remarkable use of the contrast between foreground and background. A small image in the background provided the key to the meaning of the principal scene. Among those who employed this device were Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer. An early example is found in this painting by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Saul and the Witch of Endor, in which several episodes from the biblical story are depicted in a simultaneous narrative, while the clue to the scene is hidden in the distance.

In order to unravel this puzzling picture one has to be familiar with the Old Testament story found in the first book of Samuel, especially chapters 28 and 31, which relates that Saul, the first king of the people of Israel, was counseled by the priest Samuel for many years. Eventually, though, Saul rejected him and began acting in defiance of God's commands, whereupon God charged Samuel with the task of finding a new king for Israel. The choice fell on David, but Saul refused to accept him. He was confronted with mounting difficulties, one of which was a disastrous war with the Philistines. Just before the decisive battle, Saul decided to consult a fortune-teller to seek the advice of the dead Samuel.

On the far left, Saul and several of his men arrive to consult the witch, with the tents of Saul's army in the background. The sorceress, half naked and seated in a magic circle, summons a witches' sabbath. This foreground scene does not come from the Bible, although the latter does refer to the witch's magical arts. Witches flying through the skies on a ram, like the one in the right background, were a symbol of the devil in the late middle ages, and it was with their help that the witch could harness secret forces. Through the gateway in the centre one sees Samuel emerging from his grave, rebuking Saul for disturbing the repose of the dead. In the distance is the real key to the meaning of the picture: the battle that Saul lost, after which he committed suicide by falling on his sword. Saul's godless desire to know the future, which led him to disturb the dead, proved fatal.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 15 minutes):
Johann Kuhnau: Saul Cured by David through Music (No. 2 of the 6 Stories from the Bible illustrated in music)