BAR 34:05, Sep/Oct 2008
Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle
In Earliest Biblical Painting, Greek Philosophers Admire King’s Wisdom
Is it possible that the earliest existing picture of a scene from the Bible also includes the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle as onlookers? It is not only possible; I believe that is the case.
The earliest depiction of a Biblical scene comes from a site that is perhaps better known to some for its erotic art than for its religious devotions: Pompeii. The city was buried in volcanic ash in 79 A.D. following the eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius. It was a devastating tragedy for Pompeii’s residents but a boon to modern scholars and art historians.
In the building known as the House of the Physician, excavators found a wall painting clearly depicting King Solomon seated on a raised tribunal and flanked by two counselors. As described in the Bible, two women have come to the Israelite monarch, each claiming to be the mother of the same infant. When Solomon orders the baby to be divided in half, the real mother, shown at the foot of the dais, pleads with him to spare the child and announces her willingness to relinquish her claim. The other woman is shown standing by the butcher block on which the infant has been placed. As a soldier raises an axe to do the king’s bidding, she seizes what she believes will be her portion, saying, according to the Biblical text, “Let it be neither mine, nor thine, but divide it.” It is obvious who the real mother is. The child is given to her unharmed as soldiers and observers look on, marveling at Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16–28).