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Work Saul and the Witch of Endor

Department of Paintings: Italian painting

L'ombre de Samuel apparaissant à Saül chez la pythonisse d'Endor

© 1997 RMN / Daniel Arnaudet

Italian painting

Stéphane Loire

This biblical subject is drawn from Samuel I (28:6-14): worried about the outcome of the battle he is preparing to wage against the Philistines, Saul, King of Israel, consults a sorceress who summons Samuel's spirit. Terrified, Saul learns from this ghost that God has abandoned him and that David will be his successor.

Magic in the Bible

The biblical theme is drawn from Samuel I (28:6-14). Worried about his destiny, Saul consults the sorceress of Endor. Illuminated by the fire she summons, the hideous witch calls upon the spirit of Samuel.
Samuel appears, his spectral features half-concealed in a sinister sheet resembling a shroud. This motionless phantom, torn from his tomb by necromantic incantations, imparts a gloomy and macabre atmosphere to the scene. He announces that God has chosen David to be king. Prostrate before this vision, Saul is terror-stricken; his guards recoil in horror. Behind them swarm fantastic forms: bony horse heads, bat-winged skeletons, and owls with glowing eyes.

Romantic before romanticism

The contours are strongly traced. The somber tones, heightened with sharp touches of light on the clothing, are suffused with mystery. The lighting contributes to the painting's strange and fantastic atmosphere. In contrast to the frenetic flight that surrounds the Witch, the white apparition borders on pathetic. All the actors in this sabbat are kept in a zone of dark and confusion, where foreboding wins over visibility. Saul and his companions are relegated to the bottom third of the composition.
This work was extolled by writers and poets of the 19th century. Théophile Gautier, an enthusiast of visionary romanticism, admired Rosa's theatrical and fantastic character.

A work of its times

Fascinated by the unknown and the mysteries of the mind, the painter often found his sorcery subjects in the erudite milieux that he frequented in Naples. The development of magic was directly linked to that of modern science and experimentation that exalted inventive genius; Rosa succeeded in grasping the beauty in visions of horror. Very much admired by his peers, the painting was shown in the San Giovanni Decollato church in Rome at an exhibition of older paintings where Rosa was the only living artist represented.
Painter as well as musician and poet, the artist composed a satirical ode entitled The Witch (c. 1645). He arrived in Rome in 1649, the period when this painting was created, and quickly became famous; Rosa remained in the Eternal City until his death in 1673.

Technical description

  • Salvator ROSA (Naples, 1615 - Rome, 1673)

    L'ombre de Samuel apparaissant à Saül chez la pythonisse d'Endor

    1668 ?

  • H. : 2,73 m. ; L. : 1,93 m.

  • Collection de Louis XIV (acquis avant 1683)

    INV. 584

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Salvator Rosa
    Room 717

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