“This Phillistine is dead meat”: The unremarked menace of Michelangelo’s David.

In an illuminating article about the most famous statue in the world, J. Huston McCulloch points out that Michelangelo’s David is rarely seen as it was intended to be seen, with the viewer looking straight into David’s face. David’s terrifying gaze directed toward Goliath whom he is about to kill is not well known to the public, because the statue’s unfortunate placement in front of a column in the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence blocks the frontal view of the face. The lack has been corrected with a stunning virtual image, shown in McCullough’s article, that reveals the statue as it would appear from the front if the column weren’t there. A similar problem affects the outdoor copy of the statue, placed in the same location and orientation that was occupied by the original statue from 1504 to 1873 when it was moved into the Galleria. The copy stands in such a way that while David’s torso is seen from the front, his head, turned to the left and facing south toward Rome, is only seen from the side:

By turning the statue [meaning the statue’s face] southward toward its intended target of Rome, however, rather than outward toward the Piazza, the menacing pose was apparent only to those who took the trouble to look for it. Part of the genius of the statue is that from the westward, or Florentine point of view, David is transformed from a Remorseless Killing Machine into a splendid, yet serene young man who could well be contemplating his sheep, composing a Psalm, or even heading for a dip in the pond, his towel slung over his shoulder.

The more I reflect on it the more I am stunned by it, the way David’s body is both relaxed and tense, and how inside his relaxation, inside this picture of a young man standing at his ease, his weight resting casually on one foot, is the absolute determination and readiness to kill, and the ruthless certainty that his rival is, as McCullough puts it, dead meat.

Virtual frontal view of David, a view never seen
because it, insanely, blocked by a pillar

David’s resolute certainty of killing his foe is of course told in the Bible, I Samuel 17:

And David said to Saul, Let no man’s heart fail because of him; thy servant will go and fight with this Philistine. And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.

And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.

Thy servant slew both the lion and the bear: and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he hath defied the armies of the living God.

David said moreover, The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine. And Saul said unto David, Go, and the Lord be with thee.

* * *

And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.

And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.

Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.

This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.

And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.

However, there would seem to be one key respect in which David’s certainty as portrayed in the Bible differs from that as portrayed by Michelangelo. In the Bible his certainty comes from his absolute belief in the living God, the God of the armies of Israel, whom the Philistines have defied. In Michelangelo’s statue one does not sense so much the biblical belief in God as the Renaissance belief in man and his capacities; there is also, let us be frank about it, in David’s “Remorseless Killing Machine” expression something of the ruthlessness of Renaissance Florentine and Italian politics. At the same time, Michelangelo’s glorification of man as man is not only about man. It is a spectacular extension of, and would have been impossible without, the biblical revelation that man is created in the image and likeness of God.

* * *

On another subject, McCulloch remarks on the anachronism that David, a Hebrew, is naked in Michelangelo’s statue. Furthermore,

Michelangelo’s David is not circumcised. The Biblical David repeatedly disparages Philistines in general and Goliath in particular for being uncircumcised, and even brings Saul a trophy of 200 Philistine foreskins after a later conflict (1 Samuel 18:27). (According to an interesting claim on the Wikipedia David article, it was customary in David’s time to remove only a small portion of the foreskin, but no substantiation for this claim has been provided as of this writing.)

We can only conclude that Michelangelo’s David is more Hellenistic than Biblical in at least some of its details.

First, from looking at the photos, it is not immediately evident to me that David is not circumcised. And even if that is the case, is it something to be seen as a problem or even as out of the ordinary? Each culture naturally adopts religious/biblical themes into images that fit that culture. After all, Mary wasn’t a plump Dutch matron wearing rich clothing and sitting in a well appointed 17th century room overlooking a city with a canal. Nor was Jesus a Negro, but African Christian sculptors portrayed him, naturally enough, as having Negroid features, as can be seen in the affecting miniature wood crucifixions on display in the African department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Similarly, European Christians in the Renaissance were not circumcised. To make David a representative figure for that culture, Michelangelo portrayed him as uncircumcised.

- end of initial entry -

Paul K. writes:

I had never thought much about the facial expression of David, but got some good results from a Google image search, here and here. This is certainly an underappreciated aspect of the sculpture, since from the front David’s expression appears merely alert rather than fierce and somewhat contemptuous. [LA replies: Paul means looking at David’s torso from the front, but at his leftward-turned head from the side. As McCullough explains, “frontal” properly refers to the view of a sculpture’s face, since “front” (as in French) means face.]

The statue of David is the highest realization of the contrapposto style, in which the weight rests on one leg, the body has a sort of “s” curve, and the head is turned to the side. This pose was an innovation of the Greeks, who sought to balance the sculpted figure without resorting to the stiff symmetrical stances used by the Egyptians. It gives David a posture of serene confidence.

Unlike other depictions of David, Michelangelo’s is not really about slinging the stone or killing Goliath. It is about an attitude. In the Bible story, Goliath does not notice that David is carrying a sling, only that he has a stick, so the fact that the sling is barely noticeable in Michelangelo’s sculpture is apropos. Some scholars have said that David appears to be using the sling in a left-handed manner, but, having practiced with the sling myself, I disagree. He appears to be holding the pouch with the stone in his left hand, above his shoulder, while the straps of the sling cross his back down to his right hand, which holds the end of the straps (though I can’t see that in the photos). From this position a stone could be thrown side-handed very suddenly. This would make more sense than suggesting that David is left-handed, as the arm that uses the sling would be on the side not facing the enemy.

I also like Bernini’s dynamic depiction of David in action.

Donatello portrayed David with a sword and the decapitated head of Goliath, but David himself looks foppish and epicene. Take a look and wince.

Stephen W. writes:

I returned from a trip to Italy two weeks ago. We viewed Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the sculpture of David, at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.


The sculpture is outstanding. Indeed, the expression on David’s face is steeled confidence and determination. The furrowed brow and piercing eyes created by Michelangelo in marble is remarkable for a 26-year old (the Pieta we saw in St. Peter’s Basillica was another remarkable early work of Michaelangelo, aged 22 when he began the work).

The reproduction of the subtlety of human musculature, venation of the arms, and body proportions is astonishing in this work of stone. Has no comparable sculpture of a female been made?

I was awed by it, but then sobered by the Renaissance humanism that may have inspired it; but then I had the same thought you had, that man was created in the image of god (imageo deo), and perhaps that is what inspired the artist, and how it should be received.

We observed that David is not circumcised and asked why. The docent offered that “Michelangelo wanted to show perfection so, perhaps, this is why he is not circumcised.” There was a physician present who overheard our conversation with the docent: he stated that even the testicles of David were rendered anatomically correct: one testicle correctly hangs lower than the other.

This David is right handed. The docent actually asked us this question! He is holding the pouch with a stone in his left hand, to fling it with his right hand. She also asked if his hands were disproportionate to his body: the answer was no. She stated that the viewer gets the impression that the hands were rendered too large because of the position of the typical observer, viewing the sculpture standing on a high pedestal, close up. Indeed, she said the sculpture was initially intended to be viewed with the sculpture’s base level with that of the observer, or even lower than the observer.

In general, the beauty of this work of art and others I saw in Rome and Naples (including architecture), made me realize that the best art has often been inspired by religion. I contrasted this art with what we saw in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona on the same trip: Picasso’s later work is empty; nearly all modern art is a fraud, in my humble opinion.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 09, 2008 11:56 PM | Send

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