In the Spring When the Kings Go to War
© 2003 Ginger Henry Geyer
Glazed porcelain with gold
9" x 9" x 8" (in 2 parts)
Adaptation of Rembrandt's Bathsheba with the Letter of David of 1654
It has a vexing moral ambiguity, that story of King David found in II Samuel. He was a "man after God's own heart", yet he was all too human. In one fell swoop he succumbs to lust, commits adultery, and plots a murder and lies about it. Fortunately Rembrandt broke the stereotype that blamed Bathsheba for the whole mess. She’s usually portrayed as a tart seductress, David her hapless victim. Today it doesn’t even take a feminist reading to figure out that one: if the king of ancient Israel summoned a woman, she had no choice.
The story begins with that innocuous phrase, "In the spring of the year, the time when the kings go forth to battle..." Spring, after the winter thaw and before it gets too hot was thus a "good" time for war. Convenient, like in March, 2003? King David’s supposed to be out obliterating some villages, but no, he tarries in his hammock, his bed of roses, and he spies a bathing beauty. His spring fever finds a new target. A little peccadillo, a trifle of a sin.
"When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another". It's the essence of chaos theory, how one small event can set off a reaction that amplifies with each iteration. The meteorologist Edward Lorenz offered that catchy image to explain the unpredictability of natural systems. It makes one wonder if it is applicable to ethics as well. How does our personal sin affect the world?
It is similar to Virginia Woolf's portrayal of seemingly insignificant moments that have a ripple effect.
I wonder if the Louvre curators had a similar intention when they installed Rembrandt's Bathsheba next to his Side of Beef. It was painted a year later, an appalling thing with gorey impasto, that more than insinuates that Bathsheba was a piece of meat too. Her plight probably reminded Rembrandt of his mistress Hendrickje. The pregnant Hendrickje modeled for Bathsheba and during this time she was charged with “whoring” by the church... the same "house of Israel" which ultimately benefited from David and Bathsheba’s liaison. However, their firstborn celebrated with cigars?-- died. The letter Bathsheba holds bears a spot of red. Is that sealing wax or blood? The Biblical account just says the king sent a messenger to Bathsheba. The only letter mentioned is the one that summoned her husband Uriah to the front line of battle, a sure kill that cleared the way for a royal marriage. So Bathsheba knows her fate is sealed, and she sits there with her legs crossed, sealed against royal invasion. And in defiance of the conventional wisdom of the time, she also resists the viewer's voyeurism; her nakedness elicits not lust but compassion.
The story is full of contradictions, as is this porcelain piece. There’s a trail of clues you might look for. The box itself is copied from a real one I found in a junk storeindeed there once was a Lord Clinton brand. Its logo is a helmet and shield, and it really advertises “Hole in Head”. But the cigars bear a gold band from another cheap brand, Dutch Masters, which uses another Rembrandt painting on its boxes. Below the cigar band you’ll see the initials "WMD". That is not Bill Clinton’s monogram. Nor are cigars the primary weapon in the lung cancer war. The cigars are nestled in a bed of roses, and these aren't hybrid teas, but floribundas-- bush roses. The butterfly flew in there to deliver a cliché.
Later in the story, King David is confronted by a feisty prophet, and he repents. Psalm 51 is his fervent prayer for cleansing and pardon: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me." It is an unlikely phenomenon, this royal apology. David blunders on, but becomes the most important ancestor of Jesus. It makes one wonder how the butterfly effect might amplify our small, good acts, or even a big one-- like the apology of a world leader, perhaps?
War is cleaner
and more convenient, nicer,
and therefore more likely
in the Spring
when angels annunciate to virgins
impregnating them by ear,
and presidents pontificate
and puff on their cigars
while far away in some third
the wings of the butterfly
beat to clear the stench
of smoke, and in
a rose Bush
lie those weapons
to destroy mass,
elections, and babies.
A Whatis Definition, techtarget.com, "Chaos Theory"
Ann Jensen Adams, ed. Rembrandt's Bathsheba Reading King David's Letter
Fortunecity.com, "The Butterfly Effect"
Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom
Susan Dolan Henderson, class notes, ETSS "Pastoral Ethics"
David Lyle Jeffrey, lecture notes from Laity Lodge
Andre Resner, lecture notes from Laity Lodge
Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes, and "The Naked Rembrandt", New Yorker
Jim Singleton, lecture notes from Laity Lodge
Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics
William Willimon, Calling & Character
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Also: John Holbert, Sherry Smith, Martha Stewart (on butterflies!), Don Murdock, Chuck Merrill