This painting, by the Italian artist Bernardo Cavallino (c. 1616 – 1656), re-creates a Biblical tale about King Saul of Israel (dated to the 11th century BC). On the eve of a battle against the Philistines, so the story goes, King Saul decided to summon the spirit of the then recently deceased Samuel, a prophet and military leader who had first supported King Saul’s reign, but had died denouncing Saul’s kingship. In order to achieve this supernatural endeavor of conjuring the ghost of the prophet, King Saul went to the Witch of Endor, who knew how to successfully cast the kinds of necromancy spells that the king wanted performed. According to the tale, the Witch of Endor agreed to take up the task. With the king in attendance, she allegedly did, indeed, summon Samuel’s spirit for a conversation with King Saul. It is a scene described in the First Book of Samuel:
“‘Then the woman asked, ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’
‘Bring up Samuel,’ he said.
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’
The king said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid. What do you see?’
The woman said, ‘I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.’
‘What does he look like?’ he asked.
‘An old man wearing a robe is coming up,’ she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.”
(1 Samuel 28: 11-14, NIV version)
Such is the scene that is occurring in the painting by Bernardo Cavallino. It shows King Saul kneeling before the summoned ghost of Samuel. Unfortunately for the king, the late prophet’s newest prophecy was not a good one. As the story goes, the summoned Samuel told Saul that the forces of Israel would be defeated in the upcoming battle with the Philistines, and that Saul and his sons would be killed. Samuel’s prediction proved true, but the defeat of King Saul paved the way for the ascendance of King David.
Written by C. Keith Hansley