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The Suicide of Saul
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In his painting Suicide of Saul Pieter Bruegel depicted two of the seven total suicides to occur in the Bible.

King Saul of Israel and Judah led a kingdom constantly plagued by war with the Philistines. For the latter portion of his kingship Saul struggled with intense preoccupation over his inferiority to David, who had famously slew Goliath, the Philistine warrior-giant. After David slew Goliath, Saul began to lose favor in the eyes of the people, who would chant, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands.” Driven by his pride and his inferiority complex, Saul felt threatened instead of grateful. He made repeated efforts to marry David to his daughter until David finally accepted. Saul took the saying “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” quite literally. After David’s marriage to his daughter (as well as before), Saul attempted to assassinate him at random moments in time. While there may never be one perfect method of parenting, I feel confident saying that marrying your daughter off to someone you then attempt to kill is not it.

Before the depicted battle of Mount Giboah against the Philistines, King Saul consulted with a witch who told him God was no longer operating in his favor. She also told him he would die in this next battle and that David would become the new king. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the beginning of the battle, three of Saul’s sons died. He then found himself surrounded by encroaching archers who shot and wounded him. Knowing he was soon to die, Saul ordered his armor bearer to stab him. His armor bearer refused, so Saul took matters into his own hands, committing suicide by throwing himself onto his spear. Seeing Saul dying and the archers approaching, his armor bearer then became afraid and threw himself onto his own sword next to Saul.

Saul’s death in this scene is often considered a punishment by God for Saul’s pride. Pride is a common theme that Bruegel returned to throughout his career. For example, in his famous work The Tower of Babel, King Nimrod was also punished by God for his pride.

Like Bruegel often did with his religious paintings, he modernized the piece to fit into his own time. In this painting he adorned his warriors with 1500s silver armor instead of the armor that would have been worn in the 1000s BCE. The opposing sides were also depicted as confronting each other in organized formations of cavalry, instead of the chaotic approach typical of the 1000s BCE. The modernization of warfare in this work would greatly influence The Triumph of Death, a painting Bruegel did later that year.

This painting was actually a part of Peter Paul Rubens’ private collection before it changed hands to the Kunsthistorisches Museum during a post-death inventory of Rubens’ belongings in 1640. Presumably the painting was gifted to Peter Paul Rubens who was a close friend of Pieter Bruegel’s son, Jan Bruegel. Rubens and Jan Bruegel even collaborated together on a series of allegorical paintings called The Five Senses.

Sources

Sources

  1. "Bible Gateway Passage: 1 Samuel 31, 1 Samuel 1-5 - New King James Version." Leviticus 19:11 NIV - - Bible Gateway. Accessed August 13, 2018. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1 Samuel 31, 1-5&version=NKJV.
  2. Finkelstein, Israel. "The Last Labayu: King Saul and the Expansion of the First North Israelite Territorial Entity." Academia.edu. Accessed August 13, 2018. https://www.academia.edu/1070440/The_Last_Labayu_King_Saul_and_the_Expan...
  3. Gisselberg, Susan. "Satire in the Triumph of Death: Pieter Bruegel and Humanism." Accessed August 13, 2018. http://www.ncurproceedings.org/ojs/index.php/NCUR2012/article/viewFile/1....
  4. "Seven Suicides in the Bible." Bible.org. Accessed August 13, 2018. https://bible.org/illustration/seven-suicides-bible.
  5. "Sight - The Collection." Las Meninas - The Collection - Museo Nacional Del Prado. Accessed August 14, 2018. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/sight/494fd4d5-1....
  6. "Tower of Babel (1563)." Genesis Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo: Interpretation, Analysis. Accessed August 13, 2018. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/tower-of-babel.htm.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Suicide of Saul

The Suicide of Saul is an oil-on-panel by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562. It is in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Description

An inscription on the painting identifies the subject as the rarely represented scene of the suicide of Saul after his defeat by the Philistines. These events are described in 1 Samuel 31, 1-5:

Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. Then the Philistines followed hard after Saul and his sons. And the Philistines killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, Saul's sons. The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was severely wounded by the archers.


Then Saul said to his armorbearer, "Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and thrust me through and abuse me."

But his armorbearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword, and died with him.

— 1 Samuel 31:1-5, NKJV

Bruegel has chosen the highly dramatic moment of the death of the armourbearer, just as the Philistines are approaching.See 1st detail

Saul's death was interpreted as a punishment of pride - it was among the proud that Dante met Saul in the Purgatorio - and this may account for Bruegel's choice of such an unusual subject.

As with most of his subjects taken from the Bible, Bruegel treats Saul's suicide as a contemporary event, showing the armies in 16th century armour. In 1529 the German painter Albrecht Altdorfer had shown the clash of the forces of Alexander the Great and Darius at the Battle of the Issus in this way, and in many other respects, too, Bruegel is in Altdorfer's debt, particularly in the representation of the tiny, massed figures of the soldiers and their forests of lances. Bruegel may also have looked at the battle-scenes of another German painter, Jörg Breu the Younger, and at a now lost battle-scene by the Antwerp landscape painter Joachim Patinir which is mentioned by biographer Karel van Mander.

The Suicide of Saul is an early attempt by Bruegel to reconcile landscape and figure painting. If it is compared with one of his latest works, The Magpie on the Gallows of 1568, its weaknesses are apparent: the foreground and background are not yet reconciled and the jutting outcrop of rock in the centresee 2nd detail is a mannerist device which one may see again in The Procession to Calvary. However, the distant landscape is seen through a shimmering haze, which seems to have the effect of emphasizing the foreground detail, and this does represent a new stage in the evolution of Bruegel's depiction of naturalistic landscape.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Suicide of Saul.