David Times Three

Artists assume a big responsibility when they choose a legendary figure as their subject. The movers and shakers of history, mythology, and the Bible are universally known, and with these figures comes the import of their momentous actions and the attached symbolism. It’s one thing to paint an anonymous female nude in the studio. It’s quite another to paint Venus or Mary Magdalene.

I thought it would be fun to compare the works of three sculptors and their versions of David, the young Israelite who bravely stepped up to challenge Goliath, the nine foot tall Philistine warrior, at the Valley of Elah. Without armor or training, David placed a stone in his slingshot and let it fly. He knocked down Goliath and then beheaded him. The story of David and Goliath is immortal, and the phrase “David versus Goliath” has become a metaphor – an apt, effective one at that – to describe any situation of an underdog taking on a stronger, more powerful opponent. The little guy versus the big guy. Think George Bailey standing up to Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Or the “Miracle on Ice” USA hockey team defeating the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympic games.

We’ll start with the obvious, Michelangelo’s David. The standard-bearer. The epitome of Renaissance sculpture. A work that could very well have led to the invention of the term “masterpiece”. This is a strong, beautiful, idealized David, thoroughly heroic, standing in an elegant contrapposto, resting his slingshot on his left shoulder. His physique is fit and his handsome face holds an intense gaze. It’s been over 20 years since I saw this David “in the flesh” so to speak.

david_statue

Next we have Donatello’s David, in bronze, and at first glance you wouldn’t even know that this is supposed to be the same David as Michelangelo’s. More like the hipster David. He is, well, kind of girly. Unlike Michelangelo’s work, Donatello’s David stands atop the severed head of Goliath. But still his portrayal of David himself seems callow and effete. It’s true that David was a very young man, but it’s hard to picture this pre-pubescent kid taking down a giant with a slingshot. I find the hat silly and distracting, and the hand on hip gesture looks like immature swagger.

DonatelloDavid

Donatello did create a marble David before the bronze, but that one also leaves me cold.

Lastly, we have Bernini’s David. Now folks, this is what I’m talkin’ about. Yeah baby! This is some kick-ass sculpture right here. Bernini had an exceptional gift for capturing dramatic action in his sculptures, pivotal narrative moments frozen in marble, replete with movement and torsion. His David is a prime example of this talent. Unlike Michelangelo and Donatello, Bernini chose to depict David not before or after his triumph, but at the climactic instant when he launches his slingshot and sends the projectile that will take down Goliath. Exciting, in-your-face stuff.

BerniniDavid

14 thoughts on “David Times Three

  1. Dan Hawkins says:

    Awesome post! There is a Bernini exhibit at the Kimbell Museum right here in Fort Worth that I’m planning on taking the family to this Friday… http://bernini.kimbellart.org/

    • artmodel says:

      Dan,

      That Bernini exhibit looks great! There was a similar Bernini show at the Met Museum recently and I never got to it unfortunately. Still pissed at myself for missing it. Have a wonderful day at the Kimbell with the family!

      Claudia

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    If Michelangelo’s David is supposed to be Jewish, how come he’s not circumcised? Agreed on the Donatello. What a wimp!

    • artmodel says:

      Bob,

      I wish I knew the answer to your question. We can only speculate that maybe Michelangelo just created his David the way he wanted and used artistic license, or perhaps circumcision was not practiced among Jewish people in the Biblical era the way it’s been practiced in more modern times. I really don’t know how far back that tradition goes. If another Museworthy reader has any info on this topic perhaps they can enlighten us.

      Thanks for your comments.

      Claudia

      • Bill says:

        The circumcision practice goes back to Abraham in Genesis, so maybe we’re left with the artistic license idea?

  3. Andrew says:

    I agree with your assessment of all three. It’s quite interesting how differently each artist interpreted the subject.

    • artmodel says:

      Andrew, thanks! And as artists’ models we know better than anyone about how different artists create varied versions of one subject. We see it all the time!

      Claudia

  4. cauartprof says:

    Hi Claudia,

    Wow, Donatello is taking it on the chops! It may be worth noting that Donatello’s David is some 70 years before Michelangelo hits the scene. While his David certainly lacks machismo there has always been an edgy gender bender quality to the work noted by many. As Jerry Seinfeld has often pointed out “not that there is anything wrong with that”! ;) If art historical attribution has any value it is interesting to note that the Donatello is often cited as the first nude in the round since antiquity. For that alone maybe we should cut him some slack. Best to all.

    Chris

    • artmodel says:

      Chris,

      I should have included the years of creation for each of these works. What an oversight! Thank you for mentioning that Donatello preceded the others by many years. And your point about his David being the first freestanding nude is well taken. Indeed, the homosexual innuendo cannot be overlooked. My issue is more that the David doesn’t seem heroic as it should. It lacks the valiant quality one expects from a courageous figure. But I agree, we should cut Donatello some slack. His David is certainly unique. On a lesser note, I don’t care for the contrapposto in Donatello’s David. It has an effeminate tilt that Michelangelo’s doesn’t have.

      Thanks for your great comments!

      Claudia

  5. Bill says:

    And, if I’m sculpting the first freestanding nude in centuries, I may not want to make him too overtly macho — he might not have wanted to push the envelope that quickly. Admittedly it’s not my favorite either, though I think of it as almost like a Florentine Michael Jackson. I do like the Bernini — although he does look a little too much like a full-grown man to be a convincing David for me.
    Although it’s difficult to look at Michelangelo’s work with fresh eyes, I think that he successfully caught that time when a boy becomes a man. Boasting an ample supply of new-found testosterone, this David is at that transitional stage where he feels he can lay the Smackdown on any giant who comes along, thank you — even if he hasn’t quite filled out yet. These days he’d be the star quarterback on his H.S. football team.

    • artmodel says:

      Bill,

      I totally agree that Bernini’s David is not youthful enough. As much as I love the sculpture, it looks like it could be a 40 year old man. Not that there’s anything wrong with 40 year old men! ;-) But yes, David was very young and it seems like that didn’t factor into Bernini’s work. The action is so exciting though! Your description of Michelangelo’s David is spot on.

      Thanks for your comments, I enjoyed them!

      Claudia

  6. Bob Hicks says:

    Hee’s the answer according to the Wickipedia entry on Donatello’s version: “David is presented uncircumcised, which is generally customary for male nudes in Italian Renaissance art.[9]“

  7. Thank you for assembling these three wonderful Davids. Bernini was a master at portraying action, and his David is the only one that looks like he could take down a giant.The Michelangelo is a magnificent figure study and intense face, but with bizarrely oversized hands – once you notice how huge the hands are it becomes hard to see Michelangelo’s David simply as an idealized male figure I like the Donatello for its weirdness. For me it captures the kind of adolescent androgynous cockiness that 1970′s rock music was all about, but in the 1400′s. I can’t think of anything else from that time that has that quality.

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Somehow, along the way, I came to stop caring about the oversized hands in Michelangelo’s David. As conspicuously disproportionate as they are, I’m now able to view the entire work without letting them distract me. My mother, however, is bothered by that right hand every time she sees it!

      Thanks for your great comments.

      Claudia

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