Vol. 6.6 / Tammuz 5763 / June 2003    

Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt's instructor, had painted at one time "The Reconciliation of David and Absalom." To understand this scene we must briefly recall the preliminary narration in the Second Book of Samuel, chapters 13 and 14. This recounts the story of Amnon, a son of the king, who becomes enamored of his half-sister , Tamar, and of her unwilling seduction. The avenge the wrong done his sister, her older brother Absalom, encompassed the death of Amnon and brought down upon himself the wrath of his father, David. Later, when David recovered from his grief at the death of his son, he yearned for Absalom, who also desired to behold his father again. "He," the Bible tells us, "to the king and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom."

Lastman made an impressive picture of this scene. The king, with his golden caftan and high turban, is shown as an oriental. He stands in fatherly dignity, but with no indication of sternness. His face lies in shadow and he directs a searching glance toward his son. Absalom has placed his richly plumed hat on the ground, and has bent his knee before his father, his arms folded, in acknowledgment of his guilt. The towering ruin of a palace and father in the background, the outlines of a city, indicate the proximity of Jerusalem.

Details from Lastman's "The Reconciliation of David and Absalom"
View enlargement

Rembrandt has given us a painting on the same theme; but how different is the treatment! Whereas Lastman present his two figures in a contrasting dramatic prose, Rembrandt merges them into a single group. The painter does not even show the face of Absalom. He is content to indicate in the portrayal of the back of this man the sobs that are shaking him. There is in this painting only one pair of eyes, those of the father, which look down upon his son with an affectionate and forgiving glance. Instead of an intense pathos, every phase of the theme is softened down and, in this modulation, given a more intimate character. Lastman's figures are posed as actors upon a stage; while Rembrandt has created human beings into whose presence we come without their being aware of our approach.

Rembrandt, "The Reconciliation of David and Absalom"
View enlargement

excerpted From: Franz Lansberger, Rembrandt, The Jews and the Bible, translated from the German by Felix N. Gerson (JPS, 1946)