The David Plates

This beautiful and exceptionally important set of nine silver plates, dated 629 to 630, was discovered with two other silver plates in 1902 in Karavas in northern Cyprus. The plates were found hidden near a small horde of gold jewelry. Six of the David Plates are in the museum's collection, while the other three plates are in the collection of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Elaborate dishes such as the David Plates had long been used for display by the aristocracy and imperial court of the Byzantine Empire. The dishes’ costly material and artistry were indications of the wealth of their owners, while the usual classical themes of the decoration indicated their learning. The low-relief scenes on the David Plates—with the figures’ realistic musculature, body movements, and drapery patterns, as well as the clarity and balance of the compositions—offer proof of the continuity of Greco-Roman traditions in Byzantine art. Yet the decoration of the David Plates is unique in that it presents incidents from the early life of the Jewish hero David as told in 1 Samuel 16–18 in the Old Testament of the Bible. 
In eleven scenes, David is summoned from his flock of sheep to meet the prophet Samuel; he is anointed the new king of Israel by Samuel (since King Saul of Israel is no longer in God’s favor); David argues with his brother Eliab after he comes into Saul’s camp and hears about the reward for killing the giant Goliath, the champion of the enemy Philistines; David offers to fight Goliath, countering Saul’s worry that he is just a boy by telling the king that he has killed the lions and bears that have threatened his sheep; Saul provides David with armor for his oncoming fight, but David decides not to wear it; David and Goliath confront each other and the young hero successfully slays the giant (presented in three scenes); and finally, David is married to Saul’s daughter Michal, as part of his reward for killing Goliath. 

The medium and small plates undoubtedly were intended to surround the largest, which dramatically shows the Battle of David and Goliath. The arrangement of the nine plates may have closely followed the biblical order of the events, and their display may have conformed to a type of a Christogram, or monogram for the name of Christ, which combines a cross and the Greek letter chi.

The extremely fine quality of the David Plates points to production in the palace workshops of Constantinople, which had a monopoly on the manufacture of certain luxury goods. The making of each plate began with hammering out a round shape from a single cast-silver ingot. (The plate showing the Battle of David and Goliath weighs twelve pounds and ten ounces of pure silver!) Perhaps inspired by manuscript illustrations of David’s life, an artist drew or traced the outlines of the pictures on the surface of the plates. Using hammers the silversmiths raised the rough forms from the surrounding background. Then, using fine chisels, they shaped the figures’ bodies and costumes in low relief. As finishing touches, the fine details of the costumes, armor, facial features, and hair were created by punching, engraving, and chasing. Although the artists who created these plates were obviously highly skilled, following the custom of the times, they did not sign their names. 
On the backs of the plates are the control stamps of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 610–641), which ensured the purity of the plates’ silver. These stamps, together with details on the plates themselves—such as the ceremonial scenes on the medium-sized plates that take place before a central arch atop a colonnade, an architectural feature often used in art as a backdrop for Byzantine imperial events, and the figures who are portrayed in Byzantine court costume—offer the intriguing idea of linking the David Plates to Heraclius’ reign. Indeed, the set may have been commissioned to celebrate Heraclius’ victory over the Sasanian Empire in 628–629, when his empire retook Byzantine territories including Jerusalem (the ancient city founded by King David) as well as taking the Sasanian royal city of Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad). During the war with the Sasanians, it is said that Heraclius fought the enemy general Razatis in single combat and beheaded him, an event that echoes David’s defeat of Goliath and undoubtedly reinforced emperor Heraclius’s claim to be a new David. 
Roman emperors and aristocratic families commissioned lavish silver table settings for display and sometimes as gifts to impress others with their wealth. Interestingly, the Sasanian rulers of Persia also had a tradition of displaying elaborately decorated silver plates and presenting them as gifts to symbolize their power. 
 

For more information, also see:

The Summoning of David
diam. 14 cm
Cyprus Museum, Nicosia

The lunette above with the sun, moon, and stars represents the heavens. A messenger has come to summon David to meet Samuel. David, well known for his lyre playing, is seated below the sun, indicating that he is God’s chosen one. Halos encircle the messenger and David’s heads, emphasizing the sacredness of the event. The presence of the sheep is a reminder that David is a shepherd. 

 

1 Samuel 16:11–12 
Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 

David Anointed by Samuel

diam. 26.7 cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

 

Holding a raised horn full of oil, Samuel is about to pour it over David’s head to anoint him. David’s father, Jesse, has his hand raised in a gesture of benediction, while David’s brothers look on. One of the brothers, Eliab, is on the far right. 
Under God’s plan, the prophet Samuel came to Bethlehem, supposedly to offer a sacrifice (1 Samuel 16:1–3). This is why an altar, a heifer, and a sacrificial knife are at the bottom of the plate below Samuel and David. But Samuel’s true mission was to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as God’s chosen king of Israel, since God had rejected Saul as king. With God’s help, Samuel rejected Jesse’s first seven sons and finally sent for the youngest, David, who was watching the family’s sheep—the reason for the ram and shepherd’s staff (shown horizontally) below Jesse. 

 

1 Samuel 16:13
Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.

David’s Confrontation with His Brother Eliab

diam. 14 cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

The hand gestures in this scene suggest a heated discussion between David and his brother Eliab. Eliab accuses David of neglecting his duty as a shepherd to watch the battle with the Philistines. Eliab’s armor and his shield below identify him as a soldier. David, shown with a halo and the sun over his head, has heard Goliath’s challenge to fight one Israelite in order to determine the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. He has also heard from King Saul’s soldiers about the reward the king has offered for slaying Goliath.

 

1 Samuel 17:28–29

His eldest brother Eliab heard him talking to the men [Saul’s soldiers]; and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David. [Eliab scolded him for leaving his flock.] He said, “Why have you come down? With whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” David said, “What have I done now? . . .

The Presentation of David to Saul

diam. 26.7 cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

The artist has chosen the moment when Saul bestows his blessing on David after David has convinced him that he should fight Goliath the giant Philistine. Though depicting biblical characters who lived long before the time of Byzantium, the artists show them as Byzantine. Saul sits upon a throne dressed in a long-sleeved tunic with a Byzantine imperial chlamys, or cloak, over it. On the front of the chlamys is a tablion, a woven or embroidered patch of cloth that indicates the rank of the wearer in the Byzantine court. Beneath Saul’s throne is the reward for defeating Goliath, the bags and basket containing the Roman sparsio, the money distributed to the Roman people by high officials at games they sponsored. In their dress and longer hair, the two Byzantine imperial bodyguards show that they originally came from German tribes in the West.

 

1 Samuel 17:32–37

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this . . . Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

David Slaying the Lion

diam. 14cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

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.

 

1 Samuel 17:33–35

Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it.”

1 Samuel 17:37

David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

David Slaying the Bear
diam. 14 cm
Cyprus Museum, Nicosia

The Arming of David

diam. 26.7 cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

Their halos and central positions identify Saul and David. David wears Roman armor: over his tunic, a metal breastplate covers his chest and stomach. Protective strips or scales (either of metal or leather) hang from his sleeves and short skirt. Saul wears a jeweled or embroidered chlamys, or cloak, over a short-sleeved tunic, which in turn lies on top of a long-sleeved undergarment with embroidered cuffs. These removable cuffs, stitched with gold thread, were worn by the elite, including the Byzantine emperor. An attendant places a bronze helmet on David’s head. Two soldiers frame the balanced scene. Below are a bow and a shield for David’s use.

 

1 Samuel 17:38–39

Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I am not used to them.” So David removed them.

Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath

diam. 49.5 cm

Metropolitan  Museum of Art, NY

Originally the smaller plates were arranged around the largest, the one shown here depicting David's combat with Goliath. On the backs of all the plates are the control stamps of the emperor Heraclius, who may have commissioned them to celebrate his victory over the Persians in 628–29, which resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem. During the war, it is said that Heraclius fought the Persian general Razatis in single-handed combat, an event that is perhaps evoked in the depiction of David's defeat of Goliath. Imperial imagery is present also on other plates, where ceremonial scenes from the biblical king's life are set before the arcade of a palace. Their style is a conscious reference to classical art. The plates may have been ordered for display in the banquet hall of a member of the Byzantine aristocracy.

(See Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath)

David’s Marriage to Michal

diam. 26.7 cm

Cyprus Museum, Nicosia

 

Here David receives his reward for slaying Goliath. On the ground lies the monetary reward, shown as the bags and basket containing the Roman sparsio, the money distributed to the Roman populace by high officials at games they sponsored. Above, David and Michal, Saul’s second daughter, join their right hands in the dextrarum junctio (“joining of the right hands”) during a Roman marriage ceremony presided over by Saul, who in imperial dress stands upon a platform. Two figures, one on either side of the central group, play celebratory flute music.

 

1 Samuel 17:24–25

All the Israelites, when they saw the man [Goliath], fled from him and were very much afraid. The Israelites said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. The king will greatly enrich the man who kills him, and will give him his daughter and make his family free in Israel.”

1 Samuel 18:27

Saul gave him [David] his daughter Michal as a wife.

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The Byzantine Legacy
Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016