King David: Hero, Sinner, Friend of God.
King David. When he was only a teenager, he was anointed by Israel’s prophet, Samuel, to be Israel’s next king. God needed to restore purity in his appointed earthly rulers after Saul defiled his divinely appointed post by disobeying God and taking spoils in a war. A huge responsibility weighed on David. His journey to the kingship was a long one, wrought with dangers from Israel’s enemies and even moreso from envious enemies within Israel.
When Samuel anointed David, Israel was at war with the Philistines. It was customary in the ancient Near East for two champions to fight one-on-one with each other, representing not only the larger body of their nation’s army, but also a sacred war between the nation’s deities. The Philistines held a monopoly on strong armor and weapon materials, such as iron. Israel was militarily and physically inferior. When the champion of the Philistines, Goliath, who likely stood over 8 feet tall, challenged the Israelite army, it was no wonder that they were afraid. David came to the front lines to deliver food to his brothers and heard Goliath’s taunts. Angry that Goliath dared to challenge and insult the Israelites and their God, David insisted that he be allowed to fight Goliath. His pleas reached the king, who gave David his own armor and weapons. They were too large, heavy, and awkward for David, who famously opted to fight in nothing but his tunic, armed with only a sling and some smooth stones. Goliath laughed when he saw David, whom he and the Biblical text repeatedly refer to as a “boy.” David announced that the battle belonged to his God, the Lord, and the fight began. David slung at Goliath, a stone hitting him in his Achilles Heel, his forehead. He fell over, knocked out cold, and David decapitated him with his own massive sword. Little David was now a champion, thrust into manhood by his bravery in war and confidence in God.
After defeating the great Philistine giant, David found favor in the courts of Saul as Saul’s personal harpist. Ever since disobeying God, Saul was tormented by evil spirits. Music soothed his soul. He was prone to jealousy, and when he heard that his citizens were giving more praise to David than to him (“Saul has killed his thousands, David his ten thousands”), he became enraged and continuously made attempts on David’s life. Quite a bit of David’s pre-kingly life was spent running from assassination attempts, as was a great deal of it after he became king and birthed several rebellious sons. David was called a “friend of God,” and in his songs (many of the Psalms), he is known for his honest questions, desperate pleas, and joyous praises.
When David finally ascended to the kingship, his rule was marked by military triumphs, including the return of the Ark of the Covenant, a vow to one day build God a permanent temple in Jerusalem (fulfilled by his son, Solomon, because David had too much blood on his hands), trials of faith, and … sin. He infamously saw Bathsheba bathing on a roof, called her to his chambers, slept with her, impregnated her, and then killed her husband to cover up his adulterous deed. The prophet Nathan warned David that the son in Bathsheba’s womb would die. David fasted and prayed for days, to no avail. The son died on the seventh day. David rose from his prayer position, went to the Lord’s temple and worshiped, and then ate and washed. His servants were bewildered, for these are not the actions of a grieving man. David replied that he could do nothing to change that his son was dead. Of this whole ordeal, Nathan told David: “You have shown utter contempt for the Lord.” Utter contempt! Those are weighty words for a man who, evidenced by his previous actions and Psalms, loved God and was grateful for his blessing.
How does an earthly hero rise up from such sin and become a hero of the faith, as he was in the Renaissance? From David’s line came Jesus, the Savior of mankind. If this alone was not enough to make David a Renaissance hero, then his honesty, repentance, piety, and military greatness certainly helped. In his tome Iconographie de l’art Chrètien (Iconography of Christian Art), French art historian Louis Rèau discusses the history of David’s iconography. According to centuries of thought, David was Christ’s precursor. Jesus’ death not only cleansed people of their iniquity, but it also was a call to the daily purging of one’s selfish desires. Goliath, who often appears in or relates to artwork of David, was a representation of the Devil, and,
“Comme David a tuè le Philistin Goliath, ainsi le Christ a vaincu Satan.” (As David killed the Philistine Goliath, so also did Christ defeat satan.)
By killing Goliath and eventually ascending to the kingship, David began the purifying process of God’s people Israel. The Christ-Satan David-Goliath relationship was appealing in the Renaissance, especially to pious rulers. To them, David represented a conglomerate of sacred, church-approved pride. Not only was David a great military leader, as rulers in a disunited Italy would hope to be, but he also doubled as a representation of the ruling elites’ religious convictions as indicated by the Christ-Satan analogy.
The Medici, the ruling family of Florence, desired such a promotion of their might and piety. They commissioned famed sculptor Donatello to create a five-foot-tall triumphant David statue, which was probably displayed in their entrance hall. The family had political reasons to commission the bronze David, in addition to reasons of piety. In fifteenth century Florence, David was the symbol of justice triumphing over tyranny. The military significance of David was widely promoted. Before he sculpted the Medici’s bronze David in the 1440s, Donatello sculpted David in marble 30 years prior. On its pedestal, he inscribed “To those who fight bravely for the fatherland the gods lend aid even against the most terrible foes.” Some of Italy’s princes at the time were certainly “terrible foes,” and the Medici engaged them.
The “terrible foes” that the Medici were consistently battling were Milan and Naples. The Medici were the strongest power in Italy left to thwart these threats from the North and South. Like most rulers engaged in war, they wanted to assure their supporters and citizens that they, like David, would be victorious in any battles fought for their divinely granted city. They were the protectors of Florence, just as David was the protector of Israel. Through David, the Medici displayed their special divine appointment. Just as David legitimized his right to the throne through a series of sacred wars, so did Florence’s ruling family.
Donatello’s David is nude, something that was unusual for Davids at this point in the Renaissance. His contrapposto and nudity both recall Greek statues of old. Despite being explicitly effeminate, these two features distinguish David as a worthy hero who was militarily and spiritually exposed before Goliath. A feather from Goliath’s helmet, at David’s feet, playfully tickles against David’s leg. Many scholars believe that this feature (let alone David’s femininity) – the intimate play between David’s calf and Goliath’s helmet feather – signifies that the two were at least wrestling with sexual tension, and at the most, acting on it. All that will be said here is that I am unconvinced. David is certainly effeminate, but perhaps this can be attributed to his boyish nature. When he killed Goliath, he was not yet a man. The smoothness of the bronze and youthful exuberance of David’s face reflects this.
The question of manhood brings us to many other famous representations of David (coincidentally, also all relating to Goliath). Michelangelo depicted a strong and mighty man-David. Bernini’s David is not only strong and mighty, but also sensual and focused. Caravaggio’s three depictions of David are an evolution of boy-to-man, focusing on the dark psychology underlying Goliath’s defeat. These High Renaissance and Baroque depictions of David will be explored in depth in an upcoming post, “King David: Symbol of Perfection and Justice.”
Note: This two-part series is inspired by my varying and many undergraduate papers about David specifically, David & Goliath, and 16-17th century religious history in Western Europe. It was a joy for me to revisit this area of study and I’m excited to share Part 2 later this week with you!
Adams, Laurie Schneider. “Donatello’s Bronze David.” The Art Bulletin 55.2 (1973): 213-216.
Bennett, Bonnie and David Wilkins. Donatello. Mt. Kisco: Moyer Bell Limitec, 1984.
Rèau, Louis. Iconographie de l’art Chrètien. Vol. 2. Paris: Presses universitaires de France,1955-59. 3 vols.