Mislabeling by Museums Can Leave Visitors With Misconceptions About the Bible

“The Anointment of David,” circa 1555, depicts the Old Testament scene when the young shepherd David is anointed by the prophet Samuel. Similar paintings have incorrectly been labeled as Saul anointing David. Image by Paolo Veronese/Creative Commons

When Catholic News Service took to Twitter to wish its nearly 170,000 followers a happy Hanukkah this week, the wire outlet inadvertently shared a detail from the Arch of Titus depicting the seven-branched Temple candelabrum being carted away by Roman soldiers after the destruction of Judaism’s holiest site in 70 A.D.

One group that can commiserate with the embarrassed CNS editors, who swiftly apologized for their faux pas, is the world’s museum curators. With its long and tangled history, biblical iconography is a minefield for misattribution and mislabeling, especially as even casual knowledge of the Bible and other sacred texts is on the decline.

On a recent visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art, a reporter noticed a wall placard identifying a gilded and illuminated page from a 13th-century French psalter as Saul, Israel’s first king, in the act of anointing David, who followed him on the throne. In the bottom left corner, a young man bows his head as a bearded, haloed older man anoints him from an oil jug. Another elderly man in a conical hat looks on, bearing another jug.

Such a scene would be very surprising because Saul, far from anointing his successor, tried to assassinate David, whom he correctly foresaw would replace him. In fact, the Bible’s First Book of Samuel tells of the prophet Samuel anointing David after having first tried to crown the young shepherd boy’s brothers.

After the reporter pointed out the misidentification to Stephen Fliegel, the museum’s curator of medieval art, the museum changed the label reference from Saul to Samuel. “I am not sure who originally identified the scene, probably a dealer or collector,” said Fliegel, who didn’t know of anyone questioning the trio’s identities since the museum acquired the work in 1985.

The top people at museums don’t typically write the labels, according to Linda Seidel, a medieval and northern Renaissance art professor emerita at University of Chicago. “More likely, it is someone of lesser stature, who may not be as widely read or whose expertise is not yet as broad or deep,” she said.

The Saul-Samuel confusion is apparently a common one. When asked about its identification of the same scene in its 15th-century Netherlandish Isabella Breviary, which it too had labeled “Saul anointing David,” the British Library told Religion News Service that it agreed the anointer was Samuel. “Our labelling team have been alerted, and this will be corrected,” said Kathleen Doyle, lead curator of illuminated manuscripts.

The confusion of Samuel and Saul has also plagued recent auctions. In September 2017, Christie’s sold a “Saul Anointing David” by an artist in the circle of Giuseppe Chiari for $1,250. Even a Jewish publication referred to a scene of Saul anointing David in the wall decorations of the ancient synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria.

Matthew Gabriele, professor of medieval studies and chair of the religion and culture department at Virginia Tech, didn’t want to pick on the Cleveland museum, which he called a “wonderful place.” But he said that mislabelings can exacerbate a situation where the public already tends to prioritize the aesthetics of religious artifacts over meaning and context.

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Source: Religion News Service