Saul and David, 1655, Rembrandt van Rijn depicting a harp and harpist

Harpists and artists

Great artworks depicting harps and harpists

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

The visual arts have been influenced by music and musical instruments as far back as we’ve been able to trace them, and the unique aesthetic beauty of the harp has been particularly popular. As the oldest known musical instrument, the harp holds a unique position in the history of musical culture. The earliest evidence of the harp is found c. 2500 BC in ancient Egypt, with harpists depicted on wall paintings. There have also been archaeological finds of the instruments themselves. These ancient harps were shaped like bows and had very few strings. As they did not have a forepillar or column, they could not support a lot of string tension. 

The harp features regularly in the Bible as the musical instrument of choice played in the worship of God, and it is pictured in countless religious manuscripts. Artistic depictions of the harp with a straight column appeared in medieval Western Europe. The harp is particularly associated with Ireland, where it features in manuscripts and on Christian stone crosses dating back to the eighth century.

In nineteenth-century England, upper-class women were often portrayed playing the harp. At that time, women were expected to be accomplished at playing a musical instrument, and the presence of a harp in a portrait was thought to afford a young lady particular distinction.

Here is just a small selection of beautiful artworks depicting the harp through the ages.

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