King David playing the lyre
Mosaic from the floor of the ancient synagogue at Gaza
6th century CE
H 3m (9 ft 10 in) W 1.90m (6 ft 3 in)
This mosaic floor once decorated a large, early-sixth-century synagogue in Gaza. An inscription states that the floor was donated in 508–509 CE by two brothers, both of whom were merchants. Two of King David’s attributes are depicted - that of the King, and that of the Sweet Singer of Israel. Executed with great skill, the crowned figure sits on a royal throne, a stool at his feet, playing the lyre. Written in Hebrew above his head is the name ‘David.’ The animals gathering before David suggest an affiliation with Orpheus, the mythological hero who enchanted wild animals with his music. He was usually depicted as a shepherd playing to animals in a pastoral setting. Orpheus, popular in Roman and Byzantine art, symbolized the hope for redemption and the struggle against the forces of the underworld. Music is the element common to David and Orpheus, and in this unusual rendering, the attributes of both heroes were combined to produce a crowned figure of King David, appearing as a haloed Byzantine emperor, charming the animals with his music. Years after the 1960s excavations at the site were completed, part of the figurine was damaged and the head was restored in the Israel Museum laboratories.