Arts

Frame by Frame

The mystery of ‘Samuel Anointing Saul’

Harvard Art Museums, President and Fellows of Harvard College

What is known about the artist who painted this bizarre vision, on display at the Harvard Art Museums, is almost comically little. But that’s something to revel in, because what he painted is equally obscure.

Acquired by Harvard just two years ago, the work, by Francois de Nomé, is ostensibly a biblical scene: The revered seer Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of all the tribes of Israel.

But where on earth is this charged event taking place? In what age? And against what apocalyptic backdrop?

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Why, moreover, do the two central figures seem so small, and only slightly more substantial than the dozens of other human figures carved in the round or in relief, all of them part of a frightening architectural scheme that seems to have been plucked straight from a nightmare?

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You think it’s odd in reproduction, but I assure you it only gets weirder in the flesh. The textures, in particular, are transfixing. The two white statues on either side of what appears to be a triumphal arch (though with anomalous biblical scenes adorning its façade) are built up in thick blobs of impasto that seem almost to anticipate Giacometti.

The other statuary — the whole painting really — is rendered in grisailles (shades of gray) but very loosely, so that the figures seem semitransparent, and at times almost skeletal.

The column in the foreground sprouts a dying tree. The picture’s perspective makes the grandiose but crumbling architecture race away, as in a vision by Edvard Munch or Anselm Kiefer. And the atmosphere feels dead: neither night nor day. Just toxic murk.

De Nomé seems to have been born in Metz, in France, in 1593. He moved to Italy before his 10th birthday, first to Rome, and by the time he was 17, to Naples.

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Naples at the time was part of the Spanish kingdom, and its art scene was dominated by a cabal that made foreigners trying to compete for commissions feel worse than unwelcome.

De Nomé didn’t seem to want in on anyone’s game though. He was too busy making up his own.

The actual motives behind his nightmarish paintings, with their elaborately fantastical architecture and penumbral mood, remain unknown. In fact, art historians have been so befuddled by him that until about 50 years ago they thought he was a painter called Monsu Desiderio. (They subsequently decided Desiderio was actually three different artists, two — including de Nomé — from Metz, the other unknown).

But other artists have long found him bewitching, perhaps because — before Piranesi, before John Martin, and well before Surrealists like de Chirico and Dalí — de Nomé gave pictorial form to the endless unknowns that congest around, and threaten to swamp or snuff out, all that is majestic, triumphant, ordered, and grand.

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Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.