Raphael’s fresco of this scene from 1 Samuel 16, which is tomorrow’s first reading at Mass, is in the loggias of the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican and dates from around 1519. It’s actually on the ceiling along with three other scenes from the life of David and this may account for the slightly awkward perspective on the image above. Here it is in context, at the bottom of the square:
One or two things puzzle me about this picture. First is the ram off to the left awaiting sacrifice. Samuel is indeed about to offer a sacrifice in the text, but it is a heifer, not a ram. I wonder if this is a reference to David as shepherd. Another puzzle is the little pyramid on the table right in the centre of the composition. Is this a symbol of death and immortality? If so, does it point forward to Christ, the Davidic Messiah? And what of the box carried by one of the seven brothers – is this suggestive of the Ark of the Covenant? I’m also struck by the positioning of the horn of oil which bisects the window edge so that it joins the inside and outside worlds. The anointing is explicitly linked in the text to the descent of the Spirit, so this uniting of heavenly and earthly realms by the mediation of the Spirit is entirely appropriate.
There’s another inner-outer dimension of the scene, which is the contrast between human assessment based on outward appearance and the divine gaze, which looks inward, to the heart. The text is puzzling on this: is David an unlikely candidate because of his age? or his stature? He is, after all, described physically in approving terms; ‘he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.’ (1 Sam. 16:12 RSV). Raphael certainly depicts him as youthful (he was the youngest brother) but also strong and fine-featured. But he is also somewhat turned inwards as he receives the anointing – a gesture of humility perhaps, or of reflective interiority. After all, this shepherd and future warrior is also the poet of the Psalter and the musician who soothed Saul’s raging temper. Perhaps it is this that makes David the one favoured by the Lord – that he has, in his heart, a depth of prayer that is not yet apparent to the senses but is there for any who have the eyes to see.