Christian theology has always produced fantastic art, and the work of Donatello and Michelangelo is a great example of this in practice. This sample art history paper explores how the story of David and Goliath is well-represented in the works of Christian artists and the statues of David as produced by Donatello and Michelangelo.
David and Goliath’s epic battle
The bible’s historical story of David and Goliath created a symbol of good triumphing over evil that influenced years of commissioned art in the city of Florence Italy. In 1 Samuel 17, the Israelites are being defeated by the Philistine warriors, and nobody will challenge the Philistine’s huge warrior Goliath in battle. A young shepherd comes forward and triumphs over Goliath using a slingshot and the huge warrior’s own sword (Fairchild)
The city of Florence, surrounded by warring neighbors and the internal powerful Medici family, came to see David as representing the underdog who triumphs over evil, the symbol of their own city. Three statues of David commissioned in Florence by two artists Donatello and Michelangelo demonstrate the importance of this symbol to the city. Yet these three statues have their own unique symbolism, their history and unique visual appearance tell a lot about the political and cultural climates they were created within.
The marble David of 1408
Donatello was commissioned to carve a marble David in 1408 by the Operai of the Cathedral of Florence. The Cathedral was the heart of the city. Lavish programs of public sculpture and campaigns of building and decoration were going on in Florence. Historians often date these religious depictions of art during the Renaissance and attribute them to these buildings and decorations being constructed (Wilk). The statue was never erected in the Cathedral; the Signoria of Florence commanded it go to their palazzo, at the civic heart of the city.
Perhaps the politicians of the time knew the statue was an effective political symbol. In a similar move, a second Donatello bronze statue of David, commissioned by the powerful Medici family for their palace in Florence, was ordered moved to the Palazzo when the Medici’s were exiled in 1494. To illustrate yet again the Florentine politicians’ acknowledgment of the “ownership” of the David image, Michelangelo’s marble statue of David was originally commissioned by the Florence Cathedral to be displayed along the roofline and never made it into the church. The statue was placed in a public square, outside the Palazzo del Signoria.
The terms Renaissance and Humanism often go hand in hand. Paul Oskar Kristeller, the Renaissance humanist scholar, views humanism as the central intellectual movement of the renaissance.
He identifies the term as a “Broad cultural and literary movement” with “important philosophical implications and consequences”, no shared philosophical doctrine except “a belief in the value of man and the humanities and in the revival of ancient learning” (Gouwens 58).
Gaining understanding by analyzing David’s statue
Donatello’s first marble David was an early commission (Donatello’s Marble David). The statue does not show a lot of innovation. David’s face is expressionless; he does not even seem to notice his decapitated foe lying at his feet. His second bronze David was controversial. The nude boy seems almost effeminate, and he is wearing a hat and boots, who makes his nudity, appear bizarre and untraditional.
Experts connect the nude depiction and feminine attributes to the Book of Genesis. They believe the artists chose to incorporate the original sin, grace lost, and innocence in David’s demeanor. The statue has a unique style, departing from the strict traditional form of Roman or Greek origin, reflecting the growing focus on individualism apparent in the Humanist art.
Michelangelo’s marble David is not depicted with the slain head of Goliath like the two Donatello statues. The statue is calm, and of the three statues most closely resembles the heroic Greek nude, an example of the rediscovery of classical antiquity popular in the late Renaissance period (Levine). These three statues of the same biblical David, visually illustrate the political and cultural climates of the changing Humanist and Renaissance period they arrive in, and their artists place within that history.
Berstein, Mary. “Donatello’s “Gattamelata” and It’s Humanist Audience.” Renaissance Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 883-868. JSTOR. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
“Donatello’s Marble David.” Donatello’s Marble David. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/churchhistory220/Donatello1.htm.
Fairchild, Mary. “David and Goliath – Bible Story Summary About David and Goliath.” Christianity – About Christianity and Living the Christian Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. http://christianity.about.com/od/biblestorysummaries/p/davidandgoliath.htm.
Gouwens, Kenneth. “Perceiving the Past: Renaissance Humanism After the “Cognitive Turn”.” The American Historical Review 103.1 (1998): 55-82. JSTOR. Web. 21 Sept. 2013.
Levine, Saul. “Michelangelo’s Marble David and the Lost Bronze David: The Drawings.” Artibus et Historiae 5.9 (1984): 91-120. JSTOR. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
Wilk, Sarah Blake. “Donatello’s Dovizia as an Image of florentine Political Propoganda.” Artibus et Historiae 7.14 (1986): 9-28. JSTOR. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.