David, who reigned in Israel around 1000 BC, has a lot to teach us about the Renaissance, which came about 2500 years later. Well, maybe it would be a bit more honest to say that Renaissance statues of David show us a great deal about the meaning of that monumental turning point in Western history.
All three deal with David before he became King of Israel and revolve around the story of David and his slingshot slaying Goliath, the giant Philistine who towered over the boy who was too young to be a soldier. The point of the story is that David so trusted the Lord that he could do what stronger men feared to attempt. Each of the three statues is very unlike the others.
The first is by Donatello and was made around 1440, in the transition period from the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance. David is portrayed as standing over the severed head of Goliath. Donatello’s way of emphasizing the youthfulness of David — and therefore the faith in which he has acted — is by making David look not just unmanly but positively effeminate. Faith, not human strength, has triumphed over a monstrous enemy.
The second was created by Michelangelo in 1504, at the height of the burst of creativity we call the Renaissance. It is 14 feet high and portrays David not contemplating the past moments but the future. His sling is casually draped over his shoulder, the rock is resting in a strong hand, and David’s intense but calm face is contemplating the giant. Clearly this statute exudes confidence, which David certainly showed, but what is missing is faith. With his perfect manliness, it seems clear that this David is no boy and has no particular need of the Lord to face the challenges before him. It is a distortion of the David story but a perfect rendering of the humanistic spirit emerging in the Renaissance.
The third is Bernini’s David from more than a century later and therefore showing not the Renaissance itself but the fruit of that period. I’ve had the privilege of walking ’round and ’round the Bernini, seeing and even feeling the extreme intensity and coiled strength of David. Again, like Michelangelo, Bernini portrays David as a mature and very strong man but now it is clear that the task before him is going to take all the energy and power he can muster. Some of the euphoria of the Renaissance has been turned into plain, old-fashioned hard work.
I wonder whether an artist of our day, had he or she the greatness of a Michelangelo or a Bernini, would give us a David worn down, tired, confused, in doubt. Five centuries of hard work have accomplished astonishing things, it is true, but the greatness of the results is tempered by the failures: Two World Wars, a bomb of unimaginable horror, genocides . . .Well, we don’t need to recite the list.
This much is clear, methinks: On our own, without relying on God, we humans can conquer nature far, far more effectively than we can human nature and human evil. We’ve not moved one inch beyond our need for the Lord.