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Sunday, March 7, 2021

The David Plates Plus One

 In 628–29 CE the Byzantine emperor Herakleios (also spelled Heraclius) (r. 610–41) successfully ended a long, costly war with Persia and regained Jerusalem, Egypt, and other Byzantine territory. Silver stamps dating to 613–29/30 on the reverse of these masterpieces place their manufacture in Herakleios’s reign. The biblical figures on the plates wear the costume of the early Byzantine court, suggesting to the viewer that, like Saul and David, the Byzantine emperor was a ruler chosen by God. Elaborate dishes used for display at banquets were common in the late Roman and early Byzantine world; generally decorated with classical themes, these objects conveyed wealth, social status, and learning. This set of silver plates may be the earliest surviving example of the use of biblical scenes for such displays. Their intended arrangement may have closely followed the biblical order of the events, and their display may have conformed to the shape of a Christogram, or monogram for the name of Christ. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

An early Sasanian silver gilt shield boss with a lion's head dated to the 4th century CE found in Iran was identified by British scholars as Sasanian partially because the Sasanian "Goliath" depicted on one of the David plates carries a shield decorated with a lion head boss similar to the one they were researching, that is now in the collections of the British Museum.

At the top of this magnificent plate, David confronts Goliath, and between them is a personification of the river from which David gathered stones for his sling. The major scene shows the decisive battle. Although David appears to be on the defensive, his men move forward, forcing Goliath’s soldiers into retreat. At the bottom, the victorious David beheads the giant. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

Closeup of David fighting a (Sasanian) Goliath wielding a shield with a lion head boss on one of the "David" plates, 7th century CE, that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Early Sasanian silver gilt shield boss (?) with lion's head dated to the 4th century CE found in Iran. Image courtesy of the British Museum.

In order to prove that he can kill Goliath, David describes to Saul how he killed a lion (1 Samuel 17:34–37). The accomplished naturalism of David’s flowing cape and the lion’s fur and mane demonstrates a conscious reference to and continuity of the traditions of Greco-Roman art. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

While the theme of the set of plates is clear, the subject of each individual plate is sometimes difficult to determine. The scene here has been identified as showing David’s eldest brother, Eliab, accusing David of neglecting his duty as a shepherd to watch the battle with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:28–30). It may also portray Goliath’s challenge to David (1 Samuel 17:41–45) or David’s meeting with the Egyptian soldier (1 Samuel 30:11–15). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The prophet Samuel, recognizing David as God’s chosen one, anoints him (1 Samuel 16:13). David’s father, Jesse, and two of his brothers watch. The calf, knife, and altar below Samuel refer to the sacrifice he was supposed to offer in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1–3); the ram and staff below David signify his role as keeper of his family’s flock (1 Samuel 16:11). Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

David is shown receiving Saul’s armor for his battle with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:38). He stands under an arcuated lintel. In late Roman and early Byzantine art, this architectural structure, suggesting a palace, was used to distinguish the emperor and here implies David’s future role as king. The armor is Roman, a metal breastplate over a short tunic. To David’s right is Saul, who wears a chlamys, or cloak, over a short-sleeved tunic, which covers another tunic with embroidered cuffs, a standard feature of Byzantine courtly dress. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

David, brought before Saul, says he is willing to battle Goliath (1 Samuel 17:32–34). Saul is dressed as member of the Byzantine court. His chlamys, or cloak, worn over a long-sleeved tunic, is fastened with a cruciform fibula, or brooch, the sign of a high-ranking state official. The chlamys is adorned with a tablion, a rectangular embroidered panel indicating the wearer’s rank. The man at the far left wears the Persian costume fashionable at court during the early Byzantine period: short tunic with long sleeves, girdle, long trousers, and boots. Here again the arcade suggests a palatial setting. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


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