Updated: Jun 18, 2022
You can come from humble beginnings, overcome obstacles, achieve greatness, and succeed beyond your wildest dreams. That is the story of the Jewish King David. Many aspects of David’s life from the Old Testament lend themselves to artworks: slayer of Goliath, his legacy as ruler of Israel, creator of the Book of Psalms, his conflicts with his predecessor King Saul, lust for Bathsheba, or living in exile before uniting the twelve tribes of Israel. David was much more than the young shepherd who killed the ten-foot-tall Philistine, but that heroic act was ripe for artistic interpretation during the Renaissance.
The slight shepherd boy confronting the feared enemy Goliath, finishing him off with one shot from his sling, beheading him, and presenting the head to King Saul was a story made for art. Representations range from the pensive shepherd boy to the dramatic and gruesome act of violence.
Let’s look at some depictions of David, from the early 1400s to 1700, with an eye towards what moments artists and patrons chose to represent, along with how the medium, light, color, and composition are used to frame and enhance telling his story. From prophet, giant slayer, to lustful voyeur, the story of David is well illustrated in the story of art.
The Books of Samuel
David was born about 1010 BCE and died about 970 BCE. The Old Testament books of Samuel describes David’s life and in particular killing Goliath during a siege between the Israelites and the Philistines (I Samuel 17:4-7). Goliath wore a heavy coat of mail, bronze leggings and helmet, and a substantial bronze javelin with a twenty-five-pound spearhead, as he emerged from the ranks to challenge anyone in the opposing army to go one-on-one. Everyone declined or was too afraid. This dare went on for forty days. Goliath insulted the Israelites and cursed their God.
David’s brothers served in the Israeli army and he left his sheep to visit them and bring food. He witnessed the giant inviting someone to fight and he took up the challenge against everyone’s advice. King Saul gave him his own armor, but after trying it on, David took it off. As a shepherd he had never worn a bronze helmet and heavy mail. Instead, he did what he knew best and picked up five smooth stones and put them in his shepherd’s bag.
They approached each other, ready for battle, and were close enough to trade insults and urge each other on. David shouted, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of the armies of heaven and of Israel – the very God whom you have defied. Today I will kill you and cut off your head; and then I will give the dead bodies of your men to the birds and wild animals (I Sam. 17:45-46).”
David struck first, taking one stone from his bag and hurled it directly into the center of the Philistine’s forehead. The giant hit the ground. David took Goliath’s sword, dealt him a fatal blow, then cut off his head. The Philistine army ran away. David brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem. David earned great respect, but also made some enemies who were jealous of him, including King Saul. He went on to fight many more battles, have eight wives (yes, there was polygamy), and eighteen children. His life was complicated, sinful at times, and he faced many difficulties as ruler and man.
David as Prophet
David is well represented in a variety of media: ceramics, sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, painting, musical instruments, bronze, coins, engravings, drawings. As a Jewish king, why is he so important to Christianity and Renaissance art? (He is also important to Islam.) For one, Christ is considered to be a direct descendant of David. As a prophet he ranks with Noah, Moses, and Abraham. He was considered to be favored by God, although he was human and made mistakes. As a gifted person, he is recognized to have composed many of the Old Testament Psalms on his musical instrument, similar to a lyre. David’s mastery of music to commanding armies may have appealed to Italian Renaissance humanism.
Renaissance artists liked to connect the history of the Old Testament to the New Testament, especially to the story of Jesus, his ancestors, and a dotted line connecting these important ancestors directly to the church. Old Testament figures gave credibility and believability to the Messiah, Resurrection of Jesus, rule of the mother church, and pope as leader of the Roman Catholic church, as well as instructing believers on the history, faith, and deeds of the prophets. Plus, these are just some really good stories to depict in art.
Florence had a special bond with David and depictions flourished in the fifteenth century. Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370-1425) was a fashionable late Gothic artist. He painted in a manner that bridged a flatter linear style with the new forms of the Renaissance. Lorenzo ran one of the largest shops in Florence and was the painter of the first two decades of the 1400s. Lorenzo, born about 1375, was a monk whose style includes gold backgrounds, sculptural figures, and a highly decorative technique. A plurality of styles and preferences flourished in the first half of the 1400s. Paintings might be more naturalistic or traditional with gold backgrounds.
His painting of an aged King David shows him well after the Goliath episode. He sits on a throne, holding a cither, a lyre-like instrument, referring to his composition of the Psalms - note the tiny gold fringe on the bottom of his robe and detailed gold pattern against the blue fabric. This wood panel, now sadly cut apart from a larger altarpiece, included three other prophets and St. Peter: Noah, Moses, and Abraham. Here the artist connects David, together with the other prophets to St. Peter and the founding of the Christian church.
The Shepherd Boy
It was sculpture and architecture, not painting, that broke new ground in the Renaissance in terms of naturalism, refinement, and harmonic balance of elements. Painting followed later. Donatello (c.1386-90-1466) was a sculptor at the forefront along with his contemporary Lorenzo Ghiberti. He honed his skills with Ghiberti, working as an assistant in his shop for the prestigious commission of the North Doors of the Florence Baptistery.
Donatello soon developed his own unique style. He first sculpted a marble David, followed by a bronze version over thirty years later. The marble David was commissioned by the Priori of Florence, like the city council. This formed a long-lasting connection between the city and the story of David. Florentines looked to David to protect them from enemies and invaders, acting as psychological defense of their city. Florence felt it was surrounded by Goliaths with the Papal States to the south, Milan to the north, Venice to the northeast, and France invading northern Italy. Donatello’s statue was placed in the Palazzo dei Priori (City Hall) as a symbol of protection.
Donatello’s David seems a slight figure standing with his left arm bent on his hip, his weight shifted to his left leg. He is clothed in a complicated draped garment with the head of the giant at his feet, a large stone firmly embedded in his forehead. The head of the deceased at first blends with the statue and almost seems a foundation for David. He looks the part of a young shepherd boy, but without drama, most serene after defeating Goliath and the Philistine army. There has been much written about his effeminate nature, almost gender neutral by today’s standards. What he lacks in muscle he made up for in aim. Samuel’s account of the battle has more action and drama that these early representations. Donatello’s versions are more contemplative.
Donatello’s lithe David in bronze, originally placed in the courtyard of a Medici palace, is without a doubt very naked, save for his boots and hat. The addition of a large sword emphasizes the nature of the heroic act. This statue is most likely the first free standing figure since Roman times. It was meant to be viewed in 360 degrees, not in a niche or high above with other statues. Bronze is the most expensive art to make and is a surprising choice of medium.
Donatello, David, c.1446-60, Museo Nazionale Del Bargello, Florence, Donatello, David, c.1446-60, Museo Nazionale Del Bargello, Florence, photo Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Bronze, about five feet tall.
Originally David’s hair and highlights on his boots and Goliath’s head were gilt in gold. The naturalness of the pose, with the weight on the right leg, called contrapposto, is a very different artistic rendering from the earlier David. This naked David pushes his right hip slightly out farther than the left and his arms, bent as believable angles, form a triangular composition which directs the eye down his legs to the head. The subtleness of David’s expression as he looks down, not abstractly away from the dead giant, suggests greater potential for psychological expression. Yet one can admire the beauty of the body in a more secular sense that previous artistic renderings of the subject, honestly, especially from behind where the curvature of his torso and legs compete for appeal with his round buttocks.
This ideal perfection of the human body is trademark Italian Renaissance. The Medici were particularly fond of this youthfulness, not because of erotic nature of the sculpture, but because it encapsulated the political imagery they wished to express. Youth and vigor were important parts of the Medici’s visual program. This is a step away from the strict Old Testament interpretation of David as prophet. David enters into a blurred space comingling Biblical interpretation with the emulation of ancient statues. It is an entirely new modern Renaissance interpretation.
In the same years Donatello worked on his bronze statue three other paintings of David were completed, for very different purposes. Andrea del Castagno (1417/19-57) evokes movement in his David with the Head of Goliath. Unlike motionless statues and paintings, Castagno paints David soon after the beheading, outside, with his arm raised upwards. The wind blows David’s garments and hair in a realistic manner. While painting a moving figure may not seem noteworthy, this scene with implied action was truly innovative. Castagno shows an interest in depicting realistic body movement and musculature. One can even see the veins on David’s arms.
Interestingly, this is a rare surviving parade shield used for pageants in Florence, with egg tempera painted on leather attached to poplar wood. Considering its purpose, the artist chose a victorious David with bright colors and a streamlined composition. The identity of the figure would be easily recognizable in a procession down Florence’s streets, especially with the red, white, and blue colors predominating.
The concept of David on a shield would be very understandable to Florentines, both in a military and Biblical sense. David refers to God in his Psalms as a figurative safeguard, a shield of salvation. David sees God as his metaphysical shield both in the Psalms and in the books of Solomon. Time and again the Psalms evoke protection and salvation through a shield, to win a physical and spiritual battle, and achieve redemption. This dual idea of defense from enemies and deliverance fits perfectly with King David’s icon status within the Florentine civic and political structure. The Florentine Republic successfully appropriated David’s story for their city.
Francesco Pesellino (1422-57) decorated two panels for a private residence, possibly a Medici palace, depicting The Story of David and Goliath and The Triumph of David. The scenes appear hodge-podge although that didn’t seem to bother fifteenth century viewers as they would be very familiar with the narrative. However, Pesellino’s attempts at action are strained at best.
The Story of David and Goliath is a jumble of horses and wounded warriors in four scenes which do not flow sequentially left to right. David appears in a pink tunic, first picking up stones next to lions, which he claims to have killed as a shepherd with his sling, then being fitted with armor, then cutting off Goliath’s head, and finally flinging the stone as Goliath stands in his armor. It seems Pesellino may have been more interested in trying his hand at perspective, especially with the rump of the fallen horse, than creating a unified narrative.
The scenes are true to the Bible and include a cast of characters. Pesellino uses white horses to give some order to the scenes. We are treated to colorful period garments with elaborate horse tack. The Triumph of David continues the story as a single scene with much of the same equine pageantry as David brings the head to Jerusalem. The buildings are Tuscan fifteenth century within the Tuscan countryside. Women are dressed in their finest garments. These panels are different from Donatello’s bronze David, made at the same time. However, it is evidence that the image of David was represented frequently in public, political, and private settings.
Michelangelo’s 1504 David sculpture is like no other. The marble statue is unique in so many ways. After another sculptor discarded a large seventeen-foot marble block, Michelangelo (1475-1564) took up the task, in his twenties, to re-use the block to create a naked, and older, shepherd ready to kill Goliath. Marble is much harder to sculpt when it isn’t “fresh” and having been left for forty years makes the finished result even more admirable.
Michelangelo chose a different point in time to represent David - just before he battles Goliath. The sling over his shoulder and the stone in his right hand is barely visible. This David needs no hints as to who he is; there is no shepherd’s hat, Goliath’s head, sword, or other attributes. The strap he holds in his left hand, resting across his back down to his right hand isn’t a sling. A close-up of his right hand reveals it is not a stone he is holding but perhaps a small scroll, alluding to his prophet status. Michelangelo created a powerful image by eliminating anything extraneous and focusing on strength and pose. Imminent action is implied by the tense muscles and furrowed brow and contrapposto.
Originally intended for high up on the Florence cathedral dome, a commission consisting of leading Florentine artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, changed their minds and placed it outside the Palazzo dei Priori, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. It took forty days to move David on greased logs from his shop to the square outside the Palazzo.
The statue’s nudity was met with some consternation when debuted. Nowhere does Samuel write David is naked. The full-frontal nudity placed just outside the town hall was a bit much for some citizens, so twenty-eight hammered copper leaves were made to drape over David’s genitals. They were eventually removed. David’s nudity was justified because God made us, well, naked at birth, like Adam and Eve. Throughout his career, Michelangelo treated the human body as divine by nature, and did not shy away from depicting religious figures nude or barely clothed. Nudity was a symbol in the Bible of truth, honesty, and a reflection of the soul. In the guise of a religious figure, David’s nakedness was eventually accepted and approved by the Florentines.
The statue stood outside in the piazza for 360 years exposed to the elements, which damaged the polished finish. A “cleaning” with acid in 1843 further abraded the marble. A copy of the statue is in place today in the piazza – many tourists think they have seen Michelangelo’s David or, just as well, enough a copy of it! It’s worth the trip to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the real thing.
Art is not neutral. There were political and civic reasons for the subject matter, pose and choice to place David outside the palazzo. Florence was at a unique juncture in its political history. After sixty years of Medici rule, they were expelled by an angry mob in 1464. Citizens seized on an opportunity to create a republic and with that republic, new art forms were necessary to create the appropriate statements. Florentines would have immediately understood the meaning of a huge nude male statue turning and staring to his left, imminently ready for battle, outside the headquarters of the new republic.
Documents frequently referred to the statue as “il colosso,” the colossus. Ready to defeat any enemy, strong, and brave, David became a personification of the city. It still is emblematic of Florence. The streamlined representation without swords, Goliath, or clothing, allowed the statue to shape shift and make meaning in different spaces: religious, civic, political, and as a nod to classical Greco Roman statues of nude heroes. Michelangelo’s statue was admired as a work of art in its own right, as David the slayer of Goliath, symbol of the city, and a virtue to emulate.
Just five years later Michelangelo created another version of the David story, this time on the Sistine ceiling in Rome. This David, in one of the corners of the ceiling, is no idyllic nude youth contemplating battle. The focus is not on the body, his spirit, tension, or even the faces and emotions, but on the brutal act (I Samuel 17:51) describes after the giant fell down and David, lacking a sword, “ran over and pulled Goliath’s from its sheath and killed him with it, and then cut off his head.” Michelangelo paints David seizing Goliath by the hair as the sword is depicted at the apex of the swing that will decapitate the giant, who is clearly still alive. The sling lies in the foreground while the white tent backlights the figures.
Michelangelo painted this fresco in twelve days. It is placed opposite another corner scene of decapitation, Judith and Holofernes. The four corners of the ceiling depict Old Testament scenes of salvation, and are very much action scenes. Because there are so many figures in the ceiling, and it would be viewed from below, Michelangelo creates a sparse background to make a brief but telling statement about the characters. He chooses a different moment, one of decisive action. David represents good triumphant over evil, man over beast-like Goliath, fortitude over weakness, and a prefiguration of Christ’s victory over evil. Michelangelo’s fresco may be the first depiction of the beheading of Goliath, which turned out to be a jumping off point for future artists.
Action and drama seem to characterize representations going forward. Was it that presenting David as Old Testament prophet or decedent of Christ was less valued or that patrons favored the drama of the moment?
David the Slayer
Daniele da Volterra improvised on Michelangelo’s scene (he was a good friend of Michelangelo’s) in a 1550-55 David and Goliath which depicts David straddling Goliath as he is about to wield the sword’s blow (Louvre, Paris). Titian (c.1488-1576) followed suit with his dramatic portrayal of David and Goliath. It’s not so much the moment Titian choses to represent that is shocking and unusual, but the composition and placement of the post-mortem figure. We’ve moved beyond static statues representing the symbolic act as victor over the Philistines, to a gruesome depiction of Goliath’s head detached from his body.
Titian, a Venetian painter, and astute business man, had a long career with patrons from many countries. He could paint stunning portraits, reclining Venuses, serene Madonnas or violent scenes from the Bible. A small island church off of Venice was the original location of the painting along with two other dramatic and intense Old Testament scenes of Cain Killing Abel (they were brothers) and the Sacrifice of Isaac (a father who was asked by God to slay his son).
All three canvases are now on the sacristy ceiling of Venice’s Santa Maria della Salute. The viewer looks up to the nine-foot square oil painting, directly to the severed head and contorted body. David, whose face we cannot see, assumes a prayerful pose and looks upward as he straddles the body. One third of the painting is the sky and the divine light radiating down upon the shepherd boy. Titian cleverly uses diagonals to guide our eye and direct the composition. One diagonal is formed from the lit sky down to David’s praying hands across his body to Goliath’s head, and another from Goliath’s head, body, and right leg upwards along the rocky terrain. The heroic stance and musculature echo Michelangelo’s interest in the human body. The poses and composition enhance David’s diminutive size compared to the giant’s sprawling body, as Titian makes the most of the viewer’s vantage point for maximum effect.
Leave it to the seventeenth century notorious painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) to take the drama up a notch. Painted in his last two years of his life as he was on the run for murder, Caravaggio eliminates all references to landscape and background and bathes the two figures in a warm light, creating contrast with the dark background. The palette is subdued earth tones.
David, a youth, grasps the bleeding head with his left hand while his right firmly grasps the sword. There is no sling nor rock. His sword has an abbreviated Latin inscription that reads “humility kills pride.” David looks down at the head with a frown. The drama and darkness surrounding the lit figures along with the monumentality of the poses were a clean break from idealized human forms of the Renaissance.
Caravaggio represents a new naturalism with little attention to traditional religious depictions, iconography, or fancy clothing. He meant it to be shocking. As an artist with a violent past he created a new way of representing subjects and infusing drama into scenes.
He painted his own likeness as Goliath, an artistic choice he made more than once, usually including his own likeness in a provocative manner. Why paint yourself as the slain giant? Perhaps it was atonement for the murder he committed, his pride, and as the condemned. Other artists included self-portraits as a benign recording of their likeness, mostly complimentary. Caravaggio made his self-portraits part of the drama and presents himself in a negative way. That is precisely the modern nature of Caravaggio’s art in the ambiguity, and nearly every painting of his is a paradox. He does not make meaning clear cut and easy to figure out.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpture also includes his likeness, but as the victor David. Bernini (1598-1680) had an illustrious career, mostly in Rome, and mostly as papal artist. He was the Michelangelo of his era, with the ability to paint, sculpt, and complete architectural projects. He was always in demand, and left a huge impact on the city of Rome and St. Peter’s. His earlier career was spent pleasing a very rich and powerful patron, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Between 1618-24 he was employed by the hedonistic cardinal to create a series of sculptures now in the Galleria Borghese. To say he was a prodigy, a worn-out phrase, is nonetheless accurate, although his father was also a sculptor. Probably no one other than Michelangelo could have rivaled his sculpting talent at such an early age.
At age twenty-five he started David. It is inevitable to compare the sensuous Donatello bronze version with Michelangelo’s statue, and Bernini’s. Each statue represents a different point in the story, as we have the before battle (Michelangelo), during (Bernini) and after (Donatello). Bernini’s feels like a stop motion version as David scrunches his face and twists to his right, ready to unleash the stone at the giant. Discarded armor and the lyre instrument lie at his feet. His nakedness is covered by a bit of drapery. The animal fur of his shepherd’s pouch gives textural contrast to the polished marble. This is a more humanized David, done at life size. We enter into David’s space and feel we are witnessing the battle, as if he will hurl the stone at any moment. David was done not as a political program, or even religious, but only for the enjoyment of Cardinal Borghese and the upper-class he entertained at his villa.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, David, 1623-4, Galleria Borghese, Rome, photo Gerriann Brower.
This was the last large sculpture Bernini completed for a private commission. His friend and ally, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII. Bernini’s artistic trajectory changed as he soon became involved in his life’s work as papal artist in charge of decorating St. Peter’s and the exterior arcade, among many other papal projects.
Displeasing the Lord
David wasn’t always so virtuous. Apparently, he was a lustful man. Long after his encounter with Goliath, while he was King of the Israelites, and already married to many wives, he spotted a beautiful woman bathing as he walked on the roof of his palace one evening. As recounted in 2 Samuel 11 David inquired about who she was and was told she was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. He sent for her. They had sex (could she refuse the King?) and became pregnant.
David was smitten with her and contrived a way to remove the husband so he could have her as his wife. David sent Uriah to the front lines to fight and instructed his men to retreat so Uriah would face a certain death. After the prescribed mourning period for Bathsheba, he took her as his eighth wife. These actions greatly displeased the Lord. As retribution, their first son died in infancy. However, their next son, Solomon, went on to succeed David as King of Israelites.
While there are some depictions of David repenting for his sins, the idea of a nude woman bathing under a thin guise of a religious painting was too good to pass up for artists and patrons. Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari’s (1654-1737) painting of Bathsheba at Her Bath has her attended to by two servants as she adjusts the blue ribbon in her hair. One holds a mirror and the other dabs at her feet. She is unaware of David lurking in the upper right, hanging over the balcony to get a good look. David is represented as a blurry figure with a golden crown on his head, red robes fluttering in the wind. As improbable as the scene is, particularly that a woman would bathe outdoors, it is typical of how the subject matter was presented. The artist does not present David’s actions in any negative way.
Chiari was a conservative painter working in Rome who presented his subjects in a dignified manner. He was considered one of Rome’s best artists and worked quite a bit for the pope. He lacked innovation but was a good synthesizer of current trends and tastes. His style, also popular with the British, was the opposite of Caravaggio, with evenly lit canvases, pleasing colors, pastoral settings, and no drama or shocking scenes.
The scene has a softness and delicate manner, a romanticized and idealized style. To our sensibilities, the voyeuristic king and ensuing sexual encounter seems completely inappropriate, but the treatment of the female body was comparable to paintings of Venus, Danaë, and Susanna and the Elders where the traditional story included nudity. They usually portray an unsuspecting female while the males act as voyeurs, usually awaiting the opportunity to assert power through sex. Artistically it was an acceptable justification to paint nude or scantily clothed woman in mythological or religious scenes not only to please the patron but also to demonstrate skill in painting the human body.
I can recall seeing the above-mentioned David sculptures for the first time with my youthful undergraduate art historical exuberance. Decades later, they still captivate. I was taken aback seeing Caravaggio’s painting for the first time in person, with it’s surprising self-portrait and grisly rendition. One is drawn into it not from its graceful beauty, but from its revulsion; the dripping blood, open eyes, gapping mouth, unsightly teeth. I admire the skill of these eight artists and the different moments they chose to capture David’s story. Each reflects a different time and place of creation, eras, patrons, and politics. Which version is your favorite? Who did it better? I’m a committed Michelangelo fan, but I have to give a thumb’s up to Donatello’s bronze David.
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