I recently came across this painting by the 19th Century American painter, Frederick Leighton. It’s titled David, Oh, that I had wings like a dove, for then would I fly away, and be at rest. Psalm 55:6. And though the lengthy title feels like a bit of a spoiler, it’s a powerful image. Powerful enough, as a reviewer wrote at its first exhibition, “to give us pause.”
So, let’s pause and consider the full painting. Keep in mind that Leighton also designed the frame around the image.
What do we see? The king is leaning back in a chair on the roof of his palace. The sky above him is turbulent with storm clouds, but the sun can be seen rising behind them. Two doves, looking a bit like clouds themselves, are flying away. A crown lies at his feet.
Let’s talk about that crown. First, note how Leighton guided you to see it quickly. A strong diagonal runs down from the upper left (aided by David’s impressive beard) right to the crown. Note also that the oval shape is set against the strong rigid lines of the floor and wall.
Why would David discard his crown? Let’s look more closely at him for clues.
His face shows strong emotion. We see the hint of veins in his neck. His heavy eyebrows arch down, but not in anger. Is it intense longing? It’s a bit hard to read since he’s in profile. But he’s staring off – oddly, not quite toward the doves. Perhaps he’s seen the doves (imagined them?) and has shifted his gaze in meditation.
But his fists show the anguish he’s going through. It is thought that in this painting, David is mourning the death of his son Absalom found in 2 Sam. 18: 33 –
And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
His fists are clenched in grief. He is cut to the heart, not only by his loss, but by the realization that all this violence, rebellion and heartbreak has its roots in his own sin with Bathsheba. David knows that under the law, he should have been stoned for adultery and murder. But it’s his son who has died.
And in the painting, David has thrown his crown – in anger or self-recrimination or bitterness.
Leighton adds to the presence of this violence and death by painting the battlements on a nearby building as sharp teeth, deep red as if steeped in blood. This sharp array is picked up by the pattern in the frame.
I know this desire to flee difficult situations. Some of you may be experiencing them right now. It’s a natural reaction to want to escape hardship, especially when we find ourselves as the root cause of our own suffering.
But there is hope in this painting. As there is in Psalm 55, where toward the end, David encourages us to cast something different:
Cast your cares on the Lord
and he will sustain you;
he will never let
the righteous be shaken. (vs.22)
Cares, also translated burdens, means “what is given you, your lot.” Whatever our circumstance, God will sustain us. He doesn’t promise escape. But he will uphold us in his grace.
We don’t have to fly away to find rest. We don’t have to throw away our calling. The sun is rising. And the Son comes to sustain us.
Thank you, Lord, for images like this that aid our meditation on your goodness and mercy in our lives. In whatever we’re facing, we find hope and strength in your trustworthiness.