Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans

Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans f. 58r, Bathsheba bathing


f. 58r, Bathsheba bathing

The  illustration shows a garden with a fountain – similar to those seen previously in Paradise (ff. 11v and 12v) and in the tale of Susanna and the old men (f. 44r) – in the middle of a pond or lake in which Bathsheba stands naked with her very white skin, large head and very long hair. She is flanked behind by two trees in a garden divided into many square plots of land in front of the façade of a palace with several classicist elements such as recesses of coloured, imitation marble. David, in regal robes and a crown, leans his arm on the window sill, the wall of which is decorated with a red cloth embroidered in gold, and looks at Bathsheba. Inside a sort of passageway with a colonnade like a cloister in the background, the silhouette of a monk can be seen, a figure used virtually as an atelier model in this sort of composition, as can be seen on folio 80v. The naturalism of the flowers that decorate the ornamental border is noteworthy, particularly the roses and carnations which have been endowed with adequate volume.
Since the early days of his career, Jean Colombe had used a similar composition to portray Bathsheba bathing, as can be seen in a book of hours housed in Florence (Biblioteca Laurenziana, Pal. Med. 241, f. 105r), showing Uriah’s wife, arched and tense, in the same mannered pose. This representation is also very similar to that of Susanna bathing (except that in that instance, the main figure is combing her hair) who is in turn very similar to Eve. The three women constitute a topos which endows the female body with the canons of accepted beauty: white skin highlighted by pink hues, blond hair, harmonious arrangement of her traits, narrow face, sharp, straight nose, small mouth, and thin, bright red lips: features which constitute, as regards the colour of the skin, a ruddy complexion. Notice also the very long hair, which has an erotic value in both this illustration and that of Susanna, an aspect that also be related to the garden – which features all the elements typical of a locus amoenus – as a place for seduction in which female charms are displayed, making it the focal point of the indiscrete view. Regardless of its symbolic function as a secret place, the garden offers a combination of elements able to conjure up man’s perceptive virtualities: the arrangement of the garden and flowers and the sounds and scents emanating from them.
The tradition of the subject of Bathsheba bathing dates back to at least the 6th century, as can be seen in the silver treasure of Cyprus now housed in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. It can also be seen in the thirteenth-century bas-reliefs on the socle of the right façade of Auxerre cathedral and in the fifteenth-century Psalter of John of Guant.
Commentators deem David to symbolise Christ, and Bathsheba, the bathing of the Church to rid herself of all worldly filth to be worthy of her Husband. Thus the fountain is a reference to baptism. Bathsheba also sometimes symbolises the Virgin Mary.

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