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.
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.
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.