Bernardo Cavallino depicts an episode from the Bible in which King Saul, about to enter into battle with the Philistines, asked the Witch of Endor to summon the spirit of the recently deceased prophet Samuel, the last Judge of the Israelites. Silhouetted against a bright light emanating from a nearby doorway, Samuel's skin appears suitably ashen and gray. He engages the kneeling king with a penetrating stare, and delivers news that the next day the Philistines will defeat Israel and that Saul and his sons will die in battle. Cavallino eloquently conveys the emotional interaction among the three figures as Samuel relays this news.
The smooth, uniform surface of the painting’s copper support facilitated the application of paint in fine brushstrokes, as evidenced by carefully delineated contours and minute details, like the individual wisps of hair in Saul’s beard. Little is known about the artist’s life and work, but he is recognized for small-scale narrative compositions on copper and canvas, such as this one. Cavallino’s initials are included on a stone step to the left of the composition, making it one of only eight signed works by the Neapolitan artist.
This painting is said to be one of a group of four copper panels which were perhaps commissioned for a single recipient, which include Cavallino’s Mucius Scaevola Confronting King Porsenna in the Kimbell Museum, Forth Worth, and Andrea Vaccaro’s (1604–1670) Jonah Preaching at Nineveh, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville. The fourth work, of unknown subject and authorship, is now considered lost, but the group may have included The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.