The story comes from the 5th chapter of the Book of Daniel. Belshazzar --the son of Nebuchadnezzar--was a 6th-century B.C. king of Babylon who held a great banquet for his courtiers, wives, and concubines. As the participants in the sacriligious feast drank to the heathen gods using gold and silver vessels looted from Solomon's temple at Jerusalem, the mysterious fingers of a man's hand materialized suddenly in their midst and wrote the cryptic words "MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN" on the palace wall. No one could understand the words, and the terrified Belshazzar -- 'his knees smote one against another' -- called for the prophet Daniel to counsel him. Daniel told him the strange words portended the destruction of Babylon and the death of the King, and, indeed, he was assasinated that night as the Persians seized the city.
The Old Testament story, which dates from the 2nd century B.C., has no historical basis and was rarely depicted in French art, appearing as a subject only once in the Salons of the 18th century, as one of a series of thirty-three sketches depicting events in the History of Cyrus by Collin de Vermont that were shown in the exhibitions of 1737 and 1751. It is not known precisely when or for what purpose Pierre made the present painting. The creamy handling of paint, masterly composition, and elegant, stylized gestures of the characters are characteristic of Pierre's early works, and it is probable that the painting dates from the 1740s, perhaps not long after the future Premier Peintre de Roi was received in the Académie Royale with Diomedes Slain by Hercules (1742, Musée Fabre, Montpellier).