The Art of Advent: O Key of David

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Our series on The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day by Jane Williams continues with Jake Morley reflecting on the Great Antiphon O Key of David. For more information on this series, see our Series Launch.]

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.


In Book I, Canto 7 of Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene, the Red Cross Knight, the hero of the book, falls in battle to the giant Orgoglio. The knight, ‘carelesse of his health, and of his fame’, has been caught unprepared by his attacker, for he has been distracted by the disguised sorceress Duessa and has unknowingly drunk from a fountain which has sapped his strength (1.7.3-7). [1] As a result, Orgoglio easily defeats the knight and ‘in a Dongeon deep him threw without remorse’ (1.7.15). In a more contemporary idiom, we might say that Orgoglio ‘throws away the key’, and the once-powerful knight there withers away to a ‘ruefull spectacle of death’ (1.8.40-41).

The Red Cross Knight cannot free himself from his prison, and it falls to the young prince Arthur to storm the castle, kill the giant with his enchanted weapons, and find the fallen knight. When Arthur finally does discover the locked dungeon door, he hears the ‘hollow, dreary, murmuring voice’ of the conquered knight lament his state as one who lives ‘in balefull darknesse bound’ (1.8.38). In fact, the Red Cross Knight wants to die, and he welcomes the unknown Arthur as the one whom he despairingly hopes ‘doest of death bring tydings trew’. Arthur has come for precisely the opposite reason, however, and he therefore tears off the door and goes down ‘a deepe descent, as darke as hell’, to find the prisoner (1.7.39). This rescue begins the essential process of recovery, but the Red Cross Knight’s restoration will take several more cantos to complete.

As we think of prisoners being rescued from infernal depths, we now come to the fourth of the Advent cycle of ‘O Antiphons’ that our current series has been examining; this prayer invokes the ‘Key of David’ who, like Arthur in The Faerie Queene, will ‘lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death’. Through this prayer, the Church calls to mind the strength and ability of the Key, but she also thereby recalls her status as one in need of deliverance.

As do the messianic titles in each of these Advent prayers, the name ‘Key of David’ originates in the prophetic language of Isaiah. Specifically, we hear direct references to Isaiah 22:22 and 42:7, and some of the language of that first passage also refers back to 9:7. Taken together, these three passages have been taken by many Christian readers to describe the power, authoritative rule, and divinely ordained mission of the messianic king; their contexts, however, also identify this coming figure with childhood and servanthood, and therefore they have also proven fitting sources for Advent worship and its celebration of a meek baby’s birth.

Isaiah 22 comes towards the end of a long cycle of oracles mostly concerning pagan nations (13:1-27:13), and all of these oracles emphasize God’s power over those nations and indeed over the whole earth. Isaiah repeatedly calls God’s people to believe that their God has such power and to trust in him rather than in a merely earthly power, but those visible earthly powers proved very tempting, and God’s chosen people had not always chosen him. In fact, Isaiah addresses the oracle in chapter 22 to Jerusalem, not a foreign power, and throughout the chapter Isaiah criticizes the city’s misplaced priorities and lack of attention to her God: ‘In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness’ (22:12-13). [2]

The second half of the chapter, meanwhile, specifically criticizes the royal steward Shebna for his narrow attention to the construction of his own grand tomb, and it is in this context of describing an unsatisfactory servant that God announces that Shebna will be replaced by Eliakim, who will be given authority and ‘shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah’ (22:21). Next comes the verse picked up in the ‘Key of David’ antiphon: ‘And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open’. In its original context, then, this passage speaks of a human steward who nonetheless represents a divinely appointed, authoritative figure who will act on behalf of the king and be over his household (cf. v. 18). He bears the king’s key, and he therefore controls access to the one on the throne.

In terms of the traditional Christian utilization of this passage, verse 22 is applied to Christ in Revelation 3:7, where the author quotes the Old Testament verse almost word for word in describing Christ; this clear allusion thus provides a strong intertextual foundation for the antiphon’s ascription of the title ‘Key of David’ to Christ, and it draws attention to Christ’s power to open and close the door of the household of God.

Within the prophecies of Isaiah, however, the phrase ‘on his shoulder’ in 22:22 also recalls the use of the same language in the earlier description of another divinely sent servant in 9:2-8. These verses, of course, become one of the most famous Advent descriptions of the Messianic child sent to redeem humanity; in words so memorably set to music by Handel, we hear this promise: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore’ (9:6-7). Within this famous passage, then, we hear the conjunction of motifs that are key to the season of Advent: on the one hand, the authority of the Messiah; on the other, the paradoxical fact that this strength comes through a child.

The final portion of the Key of David antiphon makes the prayer’s actual request— Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house — and its wording makes a final allusion to Isaiah. In this case the allusion originates in Isaiah 42:6-7: ‘I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness’. By this point in Isaiah, the prophecies are given in the context of the Babylonian exile, and chapters 40-55 proclaim a message of comfort and assurance in the midst of that exile.

In relation to the coming messianic work celebrated in Advent, we should also recall that Isaiah 42:1-9 constitutes the first of the Servant Songs (cf. 49.1-13, 50.4-9, 52.13-53.12) that Christians traditionally apply to Jesus. In this passage, God himself speaks of ‘my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’ (v. 1); as in the antiphon’s first two allusions, this figure also stands as a divinely appointed, divinely authorized individual who helps and protects God’s people, but this passage adds more explicitly the vital messianic element of this very individual being his function. The servant himself will be given by God as ‘a covenant for the people and a light for the nations’ (v. 6). As himself that light, he will ‘open the eyes that are blind’ and thereby ‘bring out the prisoners from the dungeon’ (v. 7).

In sum, the three passages from Isaiah that combine to make the Key of David antiphon all articulate the authority, power, and help that the Key will be to God’s people. At the same time, we can find hints that this power will be exercised in a way that will differ from the expected, earthly means of power that Isaiah so consistently condemns. In contrast, the Key of David who bears authority on his shoulder also comes as a child, and through his suffering he will himself be the covenant that frees the prisoners.

For her own artistic reflection accompanying the ‘O Key of David’ antiphon in her book The Art of Advent, Jane Williams chooses Degas’s David and Goliath (c. 1863). [3] Many readers probably associate Degas more readily with dancers or bathers than with biblical subjects, and this painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum rarely appears in collections of the painter’s work. Nonetheless, Degas’s painting does provide a helpful way to reflect on this story of David from 1 Samuel 17, which in its own way brings together some of the same ideas about authority and paradoxical strength in apparent weakness that we have just been discussing in Isaiah’s words about a Davidic Messiah.

Degas’s painting exudes a vibrant sense of energy even though Degas employs a relatively muted tonal range. The nude figure of the youthful David dominates the image’s foreground, with knees flexed and one arm raised. The slingshot still whirls around the boy’s head, but the splash of red covering his enemy’s head indicates that one of the ‘smooth stones’ (1 Samuel 17:40) has already done its work and won the victory.

Degas, David and Goliath

David Bomford remarks that, perhaps following the technique of Titian and the Venetians of the sixteenth century, Degas would often leave paintings in an ‘ébauche-like state’ that in terms of colour did not apparently advance far beyond the grays or browns we might associate with underpainting. [4] In fact, Degas did explain to one of his pupils that ‘you put a little colour on it, a touch here, a touch there, and you will see how little it takes to make it come to life’. [5] To some extent we see that effect in this David painting. The majority of the canvas works in the preliminary browns of the sketch, but we get splashes of green grass, blue sky, and red blood in the upper portions of the scene. Ironically, the red, the sign of Goliath’s defeat, keeps him from fading too completely into the background.

Degas’s David and Goliath works in a very different way from many, if not most, artistic treatments of the biblical story: many of the paintings and drawings either picture David in the act of beheading Goliath or already holding his grisly trophy. These compositions often emphasize David’s strength in conquering the giant, whose head alone looms large. Caravaggio, for example, painted the story more than once, in one instance catching David in the act of severing Goliath’s head and in another picturing the victor triumphantly displaying his trophy with the dead man’s sword resting casually over his shoulder.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Prado


Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Vienna


In this engraving by Doré, meanwhile, Goliath’s head appears about half as large as David’s entire body, and we easily grasp the massive size of David’s vanquished opponent.

Gustave Doré, David Slays Goliath

Other artists, however, emphasize the youthful male beauty of David. In David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1604-1606), for instance, Guido Reni brings a Baroque elegance to his figure with its feathered hat and languid pose, so that by extension the severed head almost looks like it would not be out of place in polite society. In the Flemish tradition, Jacob van Oost’s David Bearing the Head of Goliath (1643) stresses the boyhood of David by picturing a very young boy but giving him a truly giant sword.

Guido Reni, David with the Head of Goliath


Jacob van Oost, David Bearing the Head of Goliath


Despite their respective differences, all of these images keep Goliath huge. He is still a giant, and he looks like one; for his part, David comes across as a triumphant and frequently beautiful warrior-child. From one perspective, of course, those artists accurately capture the proportions of the narrative in 1 Samuel 17: Goliath was a giant, David was a boy, and David triumphed in their duel. In that sense, we might say that these compositions illustrate the apparent strength of the enemy and the size of the victory.

In contrast, Degas chooses both an earlier moment in the narrative and a different proportion for his figures, for surprisingly few artists portrayed the actual battle between the Israelite and the Philistine. (Rembrandt does draw David using his sling, and his Goliath still looms over the small figure and appears almost ready to fall on top of the shepherd.) Degas, however, dramatically alters his composition, and those changes bring to light a different, complementary perspective from which to view the scene.

Rembrandt, David and Goliath

In one sense, Degas has deceptively muted the proportions of the physical reality: because of the foregrounding, to the viewer the shorter David appears roughly three times as large as the physically taller Goliath. Furthermore, Degas unusually does not show David’s face, thereby placing less emphasis than do most artists on the figure’s physical beauty. In a deeper sense, however, one might say that his proportioning of the figures corresponds to their true spiritual power, a power that no one else but David—not Goliath, not Saul, not David’s brothers, not the armies—perceived until this moment of triumph. In other words, though the world appears one way on the surface, the spiritual reality might be quite different, and Degas’s painting offers a glimpse of that hidden relationship by making the spiritually stronger though shorter shepherd look larger than the dying giant. As Williams puts it, ‘because David is in the foreground, Goliath looks almost negligible’. [6] On the other hand, because we still see a nude shepherd boy, we do not forget the vulnerability of David himself. Taken together, then, this composition shows the effect of David’s spiritual strength while also documenting his youthful vulnerability.

In terms of Advent and the messianic promises of Isaiah, the Key of David also asks for a faithful willingness to see the possibility of deliverance where most will only see the likelihood of bondage and captivity. Isaiah frequently stressed the need for God’s people to trust in their Lord despite the seemingly powerful enemies who threatened them on all sides, and the Israelites of David’s own time showed a similar lack of trust in their fear of Goliath and the Philistines: they could not find the faith to believe in victory through God’s power. The call to that same trust echoes in the Advent season, when the Church hears the summons to acknowledge the Messiah’s power to lock gates against her enemies, unlock her prison, and open her eyes.


Image Credits

Banner Image: Liv Nino, David and Goliath, tin-punch, 2019.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Prado, c. 1600:

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, c. 1600-1601:

Edgar Degas, David and Goliath, Fitzwilliam Museum, c. 1863:

Gustave Doré, David Slays Goliath, 1866:

Rembrandt, David and Goliath, Rijksmuseum, 1655:

Guido Reni, David with the Head of Goliath, Louvre, c. 1604-6:

Jacob van Oost, David Bearing the Head of Goliath, Hermitage, 1643:



[1] All references to The Faerie Queene come from Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, Revised Second Edition, Longman Annotated English Poets (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[2] All Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version.

[3] For her Key of David reflection, see Jane Williams, The Art of Advent (London: SPCK, 2018), 86–89.

[4] David Bomford, Art in the Making: Degas (London: National Gallery, 2004), 22.

[5] Quoted in Bomford, Art, 22.

[6] Williams, The Art of Advent, 86.



  • Jake Morley currently teaches English at The Stony Brook School in Stony Brook, NY. A former Senior Editor for Transpositions, he is completing his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St Andrews. His broader research interests include theological aesthetics as well as the relationship between poetry and theology, while his more specific research covers English poetry from Spenser to Milton and the application to literary study of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Jake's previous academic work includes an MA in English from Middlebury College and an MA in systematic theology from Wheaton College.

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