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  Sara Kipfer

While seventeenth-century artists often chose topics like Bathseba or Susanna at the Bath, the story of Amnon and Tamar was depicted only rarely.[1] However, the rape of Tamar is listed in the lexicon of Christian iconography as one of the favored themes of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch painters. It is depicted in no fewer than twenty paintings and probably also in as many copper engravings and woodcuts, among them a whole series of illustrations, such as the ones by Philips Galle, as well as an ink drawing by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. The range of variation regarding the motif of Tamar’s rape and the various biblical passages that were chosen is striking but not extraordinary: while one piece of art depicts the hesitant approach of Amnon, another represents the repudiation of Tamar, and so on.

Here I will discuss some specifically selected pictures; the main aim is to show that paintings should not be seen as mere illustrations. To put it differently, paintings should be understood and analyzed as historical documents that serve as a medium of interpretation for biblical narratives. Therefore, consideration will be given to the embodiment of passion and violence or love and hate in text and painting. Furthermore, I will analyze how 2 Sam 13:1-22 is interpreted in baroque works of art.

“Come, lie with me, my sister.” (2 Sam 13:11)

Amnon’s love for Tamar begins with seeing. Tamar’s beauty (yafeh and in LXX kalē tō eidei sphodra in 2 Sam 13:1) is not by coincidence mentioned at the beginning of the story: as Amnon sees his half-sister, he is, like his father David in 2 Sam 11:2, lost. In the biblical text, various words for the visual aspect are used to express seeing (r’h 13:5-6 [but here, seeing means, among other things, to visit someone who is sick] and ’ayn 13:2, 5-6, 8).[2] It is only when Amnon sees Tamar that he is led to a violent taking (hzq 13:11, 14), and it is this circumstance, I would argue, that becomes the main theme of Antonio Bellucci’s painting because he changes both Amnon’s and the viewer’s perspective only slightly.

The viewer, particularly the male viewer, sees a beautiful, defenseless woman who draws back frightened. She looks far away into the distance and reaches out her arm, but she does not really defend herself. While this male viewer may condemn Amnon for acting selfishly and impulsively,[3] as well as for being incapable of making a commitment, this scene inevitably reminds him of his own longing. He sees how Amnon, by force, takes what he has seen before and therefore desires. Hence, the viewer not only is an observer and voyeur of this act of violence, but also becomes involved as co-rapist. Antonio Bellucci thus not only deals with a moralizing dimension of art, but encourages the viewer to a deeper reflection about painting and about how reality is depicted in art.

However, the picture is quite ambivalent because Antonio Bellucci illustrates Tamar as an idealized, resigned victim on the one hand, but lets her play with her female eroticism (her bare knee, for instance) on the other hand. This leads the viewer to suppose that Tamar seduced and tempted Amnon with her beauty. The narrow boundary between an act of love and act of violence is underlined by the artist through Amnon’s twofold gesticulation. At first sight, Amnon seems to jump at his half-sister like a wild animal, full of lust and longing, but, on closer examination, one gets the impression that he tenderly puts his arm around her and turns his face towards her in a considerate and caressing way. Amnon loves Tamar and wants to see her, but then he seizes and hates her. One wonders whether he still loves or already hates her in this painting.

The impression that location and time become blurred in this piece of art is strengthened by the fact that both the sickroom and the bed, the actual place of action, are hardly visible (mishkav 2 Sam 13:5).[4] It could be argued that the woman as an object of lust and a subject of seducement, rather than the actual rape of Tamar, becomes the main theme of Bellucci’s painting. It is very unfortunate, especially in this respect, that there are no pictures by female artists referring to 2 Sam 13:1-22. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654)—according to documents relating to the trial, she had been raped by Agostino Tasse, a painter colleague of her father—dealt with her experiences by painting many biblical tableaus. She did not, however, illustrate the story of Tamar. Is it possible that she was not familiar with the story?

The first part of the story (1 Sam 13:1-10), like Bellucci’s painting, definitely has erotic components. The verb “prepare” (lvv), for instance, also means “to enchant through love” (2 Sam 13:6.8; Cant 4:9),[5] and the aphrodisiacal implication of the two heart-shaped cakes has often been pointed out. The narrator thereby makes sexual associations and creates an atmosphere in which the danger for Tamar is initiated. This danger becomes real with Amnon’s verbal assaults and his strength (verse 11, and the rape in verse 14).[6]

This male physical force reaches its climax in Eustache Le Sueur’s painting. In the past, it was incorrectly believed that Le Sueur’s painting represented Tarquinius und Lucretia (cf. the painting by Tizian, for example, completed between 1569 and 1571, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). But such pictures, in accordance with the story (see Ovidus, Fasti II.721–852), most often show the naked Lucretia lying in bed with Tarquinius standing dressed before her—which is not the case in Le Sueur’s work.

The knife in Amnon’s hand, an overthrown vessel, as well as the numerous folds of the cloth, increase the dramatic art. Tamar retreats, but at the same time defends herself with her arm and looks anxiously at the weapon in Amnon’s hand. The fleeing boy in the background symbolizes the impotence against this crime, but he is also its witness. To put it differently, there is someone who, against the biblical text (2 Sam 13:9), does not follow Amnon’s order and thus does not leave the room. Therefore, one could argue that the boy does not totally abandon Tamar. He, like the viewer of the painting, witnesses Amnon’s violent behavior, but does not intervene. Like the narrator of the biblical text, the boy is an observer who sympathizes with Tamar’s fate.[7]

“No, my brother, do not force me” (2 Sam 13:12)

Even though Tamar speaks in a direct and detailed way twice (2 Sam 13:12-13, 16), her feelings, except for her sorrow, remain vague. First, she willingly does what her father assigned to her (2 Sam 13:7-8) and then she resists her half-brother with clever words, finally leaving the scene in tears. Twice Amnon does not listen to her (2 Sam 13:14, 16); on the narrative level, this illustrates quite clearly who has both power and the right to make a decision and who dominates the story line. Guercino, but also Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746), foregrounds the topic of sexual seduction, or more precisely the conquest of women through men, by juxtaposing the painting of Amnon and Tamar with that of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.[8] Sexual desires and tactical reservation, as well as the fight of will and emotions, are displayed differently: Potiphar’s wife stretches out one hand towards Joseph and holds on to his cloak with the other hand. Joseph’s hand is raised in a gesture of rejection and reminds of Tamar’s gesture in the first picture. There, the image quite clearly loses its dramatic art and even seems to be glorified because Amnon and Tamar, both almost naked, are standing side by side in front of the bed. Instead of assaulting Tamar and touching her body directly, Amnon apparently tries to seduce her with words and softness.

Due to the fact that Tamar resists Amnon, Guercino sets her, together with Joseph, Susanna, and the Holy Cäcilia, in a long line of virtuous women and men who have resisted sexual attraction. Tamar’s refusing hand and her raised forefinger underline the prohibition that is connected to this scene. In the painting, as well as in the Bible, Tamar is a self-confident representative of her own interests. Even though she is defenseless and vulnerable because of her semi-nakedness, Tamar seems to debate quite wisely and shows Amnon with cunning words the possibility of loving each other legally. She does so without shame and fear and asks Amnon to act respectfully towards her, himself, and Israel’s traditions (2 Sam 13:12-13). However, it remains unclear which text passage is illustrated, since Tamar’s protest before or after the rape can be illustrated in one and the same painting.

“Get out!“ (2 Sam 13:15)

After the act of violence, Amnon’s longing turns into hate. He dismisses Tamar in a hard and brutal way and therefore drives her into social, emotional, and moral isolation. For her, this repudiation is even worse than the preceding rape (2 Sam 13:16). According to Exod 22:16 and Deut 22:28-29, a man who rapes a virgin is obliged to marry her after the violence. However, what Amnon does to Tamar cannot be explained simply by sexual desires that are out of control, which is why the narrator explicitly adds that Amnon’s love turned into hate (2 Sam 13:15). One could argue that Amnon’s self-disrespect finds expression in his behavior against Tamar because he treats her as if she was the one who disgraced him. Psychologically speaking, one could say that Amnon’s feelings of guilt manifest themselves involuntarily in disgust and renewed aggression.

While the Tamar in the painting of Jan Steen (Amnon and Tamar, Oil on panel, 1668-1670, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Köln) protests against Amnon’s rude dismissal and denial of love after satisfaction and is led out of the room by a servant who is gloatingly smiling (2 Sam 12:17), nothing of this is found in the illustration of Niccolò Renieri because he places special emphasis on Tamar’s quiet sorrow and despair. Renieri uses the motif of the crying woman in an almost identical way as in the painting of the dying Sophonisbe and the atoning Madeleine.[9] Therefore, the artist does not illustrate the mourning rituals that were common at the time of the kings and with the help of which Tamar, by putting ashes on her head, tearing her clothes, putting her hand on her head, and screaming while running away (2 Sam 13:19), makes the suffering that she sustained public. The painter, however, depicts Tamar’s crying as being almost motionless, resigned, and quiet.


It is striking that Amnon’s love for his half-sister (2 Sam 13:4) is described in a very bald way by the biblical narrator, who writes, for instance, “Amnon fell in love with her“ (2 Sam 13:1). Yes, Amnon loves his half-sister so much that he even becomes lovesick (hlh 2 Sam 13:2, 5-6; Cant 5:8). But what kind of love can turn as quickly into hate? The term ’hv (2 Sam 13:1, 4, 15) means a strong feeling and a sensuous longing, and I would argue that it is too simple to reduce its meaning to erotic obsession. In fact, both feelings and their respective actions have to be taken seriously. Love is a condition and a possibility of hate,[10] which is why the plot is interrupted in verse 15 by the narrator, who adds an explanation that points out the change of Amnon’s love into strong hate (sin’ah 5x). It is exactly this aspect that the baroque paintings focus on: almost nothing of Amnon’s love for Tamar is depicted, and importance is given to the act of violence. This does not mean, however, that all paintings take umbrage at Amnon’s longing and simply condemn him. On the contrary, the paintings, as well as the text, abstain from making a moralizing comment and acknowledge the fact that the beauty of a woman sometimes evokes a passionate longing. Both the paintings and the biblical text deal with love’s destructive powers and mention the failure of Old Testament characters who enforced love or who—from Tamar’s perspective—could not resist violence. Unlike the figure of Susanna in baroque illustrations, for example, the figure of Tamar does not face the dilemma of giving in to her sexual instincts or not. The exercise of power and the behavior of the victim are mercilessly and openly depicted, which underlines determined patterns and roles on the one hand, but critically questions them on the other.

Sara Kipfer, University of Berne


[1] I am very grateful to Bettina and Annette Kindschi for translating this article into English.

[2] See Jan P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. King David (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1981), 106.

[3] See Walter Dietrich, “David, Amnon und Abschalom (2 Samuel 13): Literarische, textliche und historische Erwägungen zu den ambivalenten Beziehungen eines Vaters zu seinen Söhnen,” Textus 23 (2007): 115-43.

[4] See Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 103.

[5] See Georg Hentschel, 2 Samuel. Die Neue Echter Bibel: Kommentar zum Alten Testament (Würzburg: Echter Verlag, 1994), 55.

[6] See Didier Luciani, “Violences sexuelles. Comment l’Anicen Testament en parle-t-il?,” Biblische Zeitschrift 52 (2008): 244-60.

[7] It is not possible to deal with the part of the “minor characters” (Jonadab, David, Absalom) and the broader story in greater detail due to the scope of this article.

[8] Robert Alter, The David Story. A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: Norton, 1999), 267-70, has underlined the textual similarities between 2 Sam 13:1-22 and Gen 39. See also: Graeme Auld, “Tamar between David, Judah and Joseph,” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 65 (2000): 93-106.

[9] See Annick Lemoine, Nicolas Régnier ca. 1855-1667. Peintre, collectionneur et marchand d’art, (Paris: Arthena, 2007), 164-65, 276-83.

[10] See Ilse Müllner, Gewalt im Hause Davids. Die Erzählung von Tamar und Amnon (2Sam 13,1-22), (Herder’s Biblical Studies 13; Freiburg: Herder, 1997), 199.


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