The battle between David and Goliath, a story of “right over might,” is a dramatic showdown between the brawn of a giant and the wits of a gifted boy. It’s a theme used in art to exemplify feelings of personal strength and defiance in the face of great odds. Three artists in particular are known for their depictions of David and each capture a moment in the story that illustrates what they experienced in their own lives. Instead of writing about them in the chronological order of their creation, I want to look at them as if they were a slide show of the event as it unfolded.
Michelango’s David (1501-1504), the most famous example of the Biblical story, portrays the would-be-king at the moment he is sizing up his target. As is typical of the Renaissance style, he is an idealized version of man. His body is perfectly proportioned, each curve and cut of the marble appearing as if it were truly flesh and bone. His posture is relaxed. All his weight is shifted to his back leg, with one arm hanging loosely at his side and the other, holding the stone that would kill the giant, resting against his shoulder. All the tension of the moment is played out in his facial expression. Under furrowed brows his piercing eyes are focused on his target, readying himself for battle. Michelangelo’s David is a metaphor for the city in which it was created: Florence; a commercial center that, at the time, was challenging the power of Rome.
Gianlorenzo Bernini chose to sculpt his David (1623-1624) at the moment of conflict, as was characteristic of the emotionally charged Baroque style. David’s entire body is part of the story. Turned to the side, his legs are braced and ready to spring into action. He twists his torso away from his target, stretching the slingshot tight between his hands as he prepares to aim. Determination is clearly seen in his facial expression. His jaw is clenched, his mouth; grimacing, and the intensity in his eyes almost forces the observer to turn away from him to follow his glare to the imaginary Goliath. We are witnessing the moment just prior to battle. Bernini’s intention is to bring the observer into the moment with him and that connection between myself and the artist is what makes it my favorite of the three depictions.
The aftermath of the battle is depicted in Donatello’s David (circa 1440). It precedes the other two and is the first freestanding nude male created since antiquity, thereby exerting the power of the Medici family who’d commissioned the work over the Vatican by breaking the church’s sanctioned artistic rules. David is small and effeminate, his body softly curving as a hand rests on his hip. A coy smile plays on his lips as he eyes the head of the giant at his feet. In contrast, the large and heavily bearded head of Goliath is overtly masculine. Donatello even goes so far as to place Goliath’s sword, an obvious phallic symbol, in David’s hand.
Together, these sculptures tell the celebrated story in three different styles, from three different perspectives but always with the same message:
Through faith in ourselves, even the weakest among us can prevail.