King David: Symbol of Perfection and Justice
Note: This is part two of my series on Renaissance and Baroque depictions of David.
Part One of this series explored the story of King David and, despite his shortcomings, how he came to be a Renaissance hero. Not only was David considered to be a precursor of Christ, he was also revered for his honesty and military triumphs. Donatello’s Bronze David (c. 1440s) was used to discuss how Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, displayed David as a symbol of their military power and piety. The Bronze David does not approach the manhood displayed by later Davids created by Michelangelo, Bernini and Caravaggio. What inspired these artists to create such strong, confident and emotionally and physically developed Davids?
Like Donatello’s Bronze David, Michelangelo’s famous marble masterpiece David is also nude. This David stands assured, confident, and strong. The massive scale of this statue – it weighs 6 tons – is due to its original commission. It was not initially intended to be viewed up close, but rather to be placed on the roof of Florence’s cathedral. It was too heavy, however, and dispute ensued as to where David should be placed. The sculpture now stands in its own alcove in Florence’s Accademia di Belle Arti.
When I saw Michelangelo’s David in person, my jaw dropped at the massive scale of the sculpture in front of me. I felt incredibly small. If the sculpture was in its original intended home on the roof of the Duomo, it would not have had the same affect on me. But here, in front of me, I am but a small viewer of a famed, revered victor.
Scale was not abandoned in past depictions of David, and neither was Goliath. What is missing from this David is… Goliath himself. The sling that David used to defeat Goliath is slung over his back. The emphasis is placed on David alone. He does not appear as the “boy” that the Biblical text referred to him as. This David is muscular and confident, reminiscent of ancient statues of Greek and Roman warriors and gods. He stands contrapposto, perhaps already have thrown the defeating stone and looking out in triumph. The viewer, in a way, forced to do nothing but admire David’s beauty: the beauty of the male form, of victory, of the story of a person who rose from a boy to a king. Admiration is the action that this David welcomes us into.
On the other hand, Bernini’s David, housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome and commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, invites the viewer to react to his focused and strength-filled casting of the fatal stone. As Joy Kenseth argues in Bernini’s Borghese Sculptures: Another View, it is unlikely that Bernini’s intent was to “render the Borghese statues with a respect to a single, dominate view.” Instead, we are invited to participate in the flurry of action:
The journey that we, the beholders, make about the statue leads us to a point where we become both physically and psychologically aligned with the David. Like the Biblical hero, we turn our heads to sight Goliath, and like David, too, we become potential champions against the Philistine.
Movement was crucial to Bernini’s sensual, emotional and flurried art. Viewers cannot stand static and arrested as they might looking at Michelangelo or Donatello’s Davids. Instead, viewers of Bernini’s David move around the sculpture before them, inspect it, and participate the action and event it portrays. By defeating Goliath, David administers and maintains justice. In his marble form, this David represents the perpetual administration of heroic, god-fearing justice, revered and upheld by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, in whose villa the sculpture stands.
Caravaggio painted three versions of David (and Goliath), all centered around the theme of transformative justice; that is, the way in which the defeat of Goliath affected David. David is inextricably attached to and defined by Goliath. Caravaggio’s David and Goliaths represent the underlying action that made David great: the defeat of the profane giant (and, by extension, Christ’s defeat of sin) and the beginning of a pure Israel.
The dates of Caravaggio’s David and Goliaths are highly contested among scholars, and the debate will not be taken up here. I will use the dates that I used in my thesis. (The following discussion of Caravaggio’s paintings is drawn upon from my thesis, which, among other things, explored these three paintings in depth as a series.) Caravaggio’s first David and Goliath, painted c. 1605-6, is now in the Prado. His second, painted c. 1608, is in Vienna; and his third and arguably most famous of the three, is in the Borghese Gallery and was painted in 1610.
In the Madrid painting, David is depicted as a boy, just as the Biblical text describes him. He bends over Goliath’s headless body, which wears armor, in contrast to David’s mere tunic. This is the only painting of the three that features Goliath’s body. Goliath’s hand is still frozen into a fist, his eyes gaze out at the viewer, and his mouth is agape. He still looks aware of his surroundings, and rightfully so since his head was freshly cut off and David has laid Goliath’s sword nearby. The composition of the piece leads the viewer to Goliath’s head, ultimately, which is a self-portrait of the artist himself. David is fussing with Goliath’s hair, preparing himself to pick up the head and present it to the victorious army of Israel and the defeated one of the Philistines. David shys his face away from the light as he readies himself, making the composition;’s emphasis on Caravaggio-Goliath. Even though this is a self-portrait, Caravaggio stayed within the bounds of the Tridentine Catechism, accurately representing the Biblical text with regards to costume and figural development.
The Vienna painting showcases a confident, physically developed, and self-aware David. Light shines down on his body. One hand holds Goliath’s massive sword, and the other lifts up Goliath’s head, displaying it to both armies and proclaiming the God of Israel’s victory. Goliath’s head drips blood and his eyes are downcast, unlike in the Madrid painting. David stares out to an invisible audience, now a hero and a brave soldier who overcame a terrifying and better equipped champion.
The focus of this and the Roman painting’s compositions could be either David or Goliath, depending on the viewer’s relationship with the story and the artist. That is, the viewer could choose to focus on Goliath in his sad, bodyless state, who, in the Vienna painting is probably not also Caravaggio but definitely is in the Rome painting. Or the viewer could focus on the triumphant David, whose victory has now transformed him from a boy to a man.
Whereas David was but a shy boy in the Madrid painting and an undaunted hero in the Vienna painting, the Roman painting displays a David who seems disgusted and unconvinced of the rectitude of his militant act. Caravaggio scholar David Stone reflects that David is presented as
“a David of Christian humility, who not only declines to rejoice at his victory, but actually seems to lament the role of executioner into which he has been cast… He looks down at his trophy with nothing more than Christ-like empathy.”
Stone makes an excellent point. Like Christ, David isn’t rejoicing in the death of a sinner (cf. 2 Peter 3:9). In this final painting, Goliath’s death is portrayed as a tragic, unsettling event. A giant who threatened to enslave all of Israel and who insulted the Israelite God is dead, his eyes still glossy and his head still bleeding. This is undoubtedly not a pleasant sight, even if it marks a military and spiritual victory. David has lowered Goliath’s sword and he looks upon the severed head with a sickly contempt, appalled by the vileness of Goliath’s physical body and the vileness of his sin (cf. 1 Samuel 17:26).
The Borghese David and Goliath symbolizes more than just the Renaissance hero David defeating Goliath, tyranny and sin. It is a visual exploration of death. In their engaging psychoanalytic study of Caravaggio, art theorists Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit write,
“Death does not merely follow life; it is a movement in life…. Christianity tells a story of spectacular transitions between Eternal Being, human life, and death….”
David was one of a few Old Testament heroes who understood eternal life and sin’s effect on human souls (cf. Psalm 16 & 51). Centuries later, the Catechism of the Council of Trent explained to believers that resurrection of the soul occurs after bodily death when a believer has “[risen] from the death of sin to the life of grace.” To the Renaissance believer, Goliath is a warning, for he died in his sin and experienced death in sorrow rather than as a “bright opening to a blessed immortality.” Death of a sinner or the pious is still not a joyous occasion for those left behind, as we can see from David’s face. Grief, horror, and confusion are involved, but the good is this: in David and Goliath’s case, sin was vanquished and Israel was safe, and in the death of faithful laymen, they would be seen again in heaven (cf. 2 Samuel 12:23).
David’s unwavering faith in the face of death, war, and his rough path to the kingship solidified him as a hero for the ages. He was admired for his Psalms, which the Tridentine Catechism describes as “embrac[ing] the principal mysteries of redemption.” His righteousness and repentance were extolled consistently throughout the Renaissance and Baroque period. When Saul tried to kill David, not once but several times, David never returned such an attempt. And, when David sinned sexually with the beautiful Bathsheba and subsequently killed her husband, he repented in tears and sorrow and penned several regretful Psalms. David was a powerful and (usually) wise ruler. He possessed qualities which princes of the Church and Italian nations desired within themselves. As a king, David was quick to administer justice to those who deserved it and quick to welcome in outcasts, such as his dear friend Jonathan’s lame son. He defended his kingdom rigorously and victoriously. As a man, David was favored by God, talented, handsome (a quality important to the Israelites, cf. 1 Samuel 9:2 and 1 Samuel 16), and he rose to power at a young age. He was simultaneously and paradoxically a human who faced temptations, the pre-cursor of Christ, and a symbol of pious perfection. His life was made up of countless admirable and godly acts, few sins to learn from, and hundreds of successful military campaigns. David’s effigy was the perfect commission for a prince of the Church wanting a constant reminder of faithfulness and redemption, or for a prince of nations, wanting a public and readily recognizable symbol of power and faithfulness.