(b. 1591, Coulommier-en-Brie, d. 1632, Roma)

The Judgment of Solomon

c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 174 x 213 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba, and third king of united Israel; his wisdom was proverbial. Solomon's rein saw the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem.

According to the biblical story Solomon was called upon to judge between the claims of two prostitutes who dwelt in one house, each of whom had given birth to a child at the same time. One infant had died and each woman then claimed that the other belonged to her. To determine the truth the king ordered a sword to be brought, saying, 'Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.' At this, the true mother revealed herself by renouncing her claim to the child in order that its life might be spared. The child was restored to her.

The scene, widely depicted in Christian art, shows Solomon on his throne, the two suppliant women before him. An executioner stands holding the living child aloft in one hand, with a sword in the other. The dead child lies on the ground. The subject was made to prefigure the Last Judgment, and came to be used as a symbol of Justice in a wider sense.

Though earlier this painting was thought to be a copy, the canvas is now considered to be an autograph work of Valentin. A prominent member of Rome's colony of transalpine painters, this Frenchman was active in the papal city from around 1613 until his death in 1632.

A replica of this picture, with slight variations and dated to 1625-26, is conserved at the Louvre. In both versions, Valentin arranges his scene along a central axis that coincides with the figure of Solomon: to either side are counterbalanced groups, each centring on one of the two female protagonists of this biblical narrative. The figures are emphasized as much as possible by the strong and direct light.

Between the original and the second version, variants in the arms of the woman to the right (gathered to her breast in the Parisian picture) have the effect of giving greater movement to the scene and better emphasizing the figure of the true mother. Differences in the idealization of the figures, the more refined and subtle definition of the light and chromatic range in the Louvre picture, and the more intense rendering of the chiaroscuro in the Roman painting lead to the conclusion that the Roman work is earlier than the French one and must have been executed around 1620. This conclusion is supported by the many similarities between the National Gallery picture and other confirmed works by Valentin that date to the same years.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
George Frideric Handel: Solomon - Chorus: Your harps and cymbals