The Meaning of the Statue of David

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By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56633969

I have always admired Michelangelo’s David. It is perhaps the greatest sculpture of a male in existence, with incredible detail and artistry.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to see some of the deeper meaning in David. I’ve thought about why I am drawn so strongly to this statue of a Jewish shepherd boy about to do battle with Goliath. I finally put my thoughts into words, and decided to share them with the world. I believe David, the statue David, and the symbolic David serve as reminders for who we should aspire to be.

Biblical background

The first thing that resonates with me about David is the Biblical background. Here is an unassuming shepherd boy, anointed to be the future king of Israel by the prophet Samuel. He is not a soldier. In this story, he plays the role of food supplier to his brothers messenger for his father. For context, the Israelites are at war against the Philistines, and David’s brothers are on the front lines.

Upon arrival at the battlefield, David sees the Philistine giant Goliath, who has been coming out for days and taunting the Israelites. Goliath demands the Israelites send out someone to fight him. The outcome of that duel would determine the outcome of the entire battle—and the future of both nations.

David, perhaps naïve yet emboldened by the Spirit of God, asks his brothers why the people of God are letting this heathen Goliath taunt them. His brothers basically ask him, “Have you seen the size of that guy?” Trusting in their own might, there’s no way they can defeat the giant.

But David feels otherwise. He goes to King Saul and asks to fight Goliath—a gutsy move for a teenage shepherd boy. King Saul is reluctant at first, then offers David his armor, which doesn’t fit. Undeterred, David opts to go into battle with just five smooth stones and his slingshot. (Whether he was nude in battle, as the statue depicts, is unknown, though the fact that David is unclothed and unarmored reinforces his vulnerability going into this already-lopsided contest.)

Goliath laughs at David, the little shepherd boy with no armor, no sword, and no hand-to-hand combat experience in the traditional sense. But what David lacks in physical trappings, he more than makes up for in faith in God, and tells Goliath such. He loads a stone into his sling, fires away, and hits Goliath square between the eyes, knocking him out cold. He then rushes over and cuts off Goliath’s head with his own massive sword—which surely took a fair amount of strength for a teenager to do. As a result, David quickly becomes the hero of the Israelites and sets himself up to become the future king he was anointed to be.

Michelangelo’s David cannot possibly tell this whole story as a single frame, a snapshot in time, yet I think it does. We see the young man as he’s getting ready for battle, stone in hand, eyes set on his opponent, muscles taut and ready to strike. He’s made his decision to serve the Lord rather than just remain the youngest of his brothers, the shepherd messenger. He is leaning into his faith in the Lord and (I believe) his divine calling to be the future king of Israel. In other words, he is standing with courage and embracing his destiny. From a story perspective alone, this is why I admire this statue.

Artistic background

I am no art historian, much less a general historian, but my understanding of the background of David is pretty interesting. Michelangelo was commissioned to carve a statue of David that would be placed on the corner of the Florence Cathedral. He was given an oddly-shaped block of marble to work with, one that another sculptor had already tried to carve something out of. So he wasn’t exactly starting from scratch and in optimal artistic circumstances.

A couple years later, after unceasing work, Michelangelo unveiled his finished work to the town and religious authorities. They were stunned by what Michelangelo had extracted from the marble. They agreed that it was far too good to just place on the corner of the Florence Cathedral. Instead, they placed it proudly in the town square, turning David‘s eyes in the direction of Rome. (That should tell you a little about the Florentines’ opinion of that city).

Most can agree that it takes great skill to carve any statue out of a hunk of marble, much less a masterpiece like David. To me, the real skill is not being able to hew out a statue, but being able to see the statue within the marble in the first place. The block of marble constrained Michelangelo in terms of the statue’s size and form. Thus, he had to figure out how his David was before he could set to work freeing him from the rock. This is why David‘s stance is rather sideways and unbalanced. Michelangelo had to make him that way because that’s how David was beneath the stone.

By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109722868

Michelangelo’s knowledge of the human anatomy, from an artistic perspective, seems to be unparalleled for his time. He perfected David‘s musculature and at proportions that are aesthetically pleasing. Because David was to be displayed from the corner of the cathedral, Michelangelo intentionally enlarged David‘s head and hands. This would make them more emphasized to viewers below. Not only that, he proportioned down to the exact angle that viewers would be seeing David from, so his figure would look normal from the ground. The insight Michelangelo had into his work was amazing.

Symbolic perspective

Anyone can read their own symbolism into a work of art, and that’s part of what makes art so important. Great art may have a single intent or theme, but it resonates with each of us differently. David is no different. This section is subjective, but I have to think that perhaps Michelangelo understood some of these things when crafting David.

As mentioned above, David symbolizes stepping out on faith with full reliance on God. He is going into a battle with all odds against him: naked, inexperienced in war, armed with just the five smooth stones he pulled from the river and his sling to launch them with. One hack from Goliath’s sword and he would be done for. Not only that, his nation would be done for (so imagine what King Saul and all the other Israelites there were thinking). And yet, no other Israelite was going to stick their neck out to fight Goliath. Surely there were better, more qualified combatants. But David was the only one who declared his faith in God and took up arms against all odds.

By Jörg Bittner Unna – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109722872

Along with that, David symbolizes the best definitions of courage and strength. We don’t know exactly what David felt before fighting Goliath, but David the statue appears to embody the definition of courage as “feeling the fear and doing it anyway”. His eyes and face do not look confident; if anything, they look apprehensive. He is not relaxed. His body is tense and ready for a fight, as seen in the veins in his hand and the rippling muscles of his torso. He has his weight on his back leg, as if bracing himself but also shying away from the danger he faces. These apparent contradictions are anything but. They paint a picture of a real hero, one who (as above) is stepping out on faith but is still grounded to the earthly reality that “I could die doing this”. He knows the right thing to do but still has his doubts about whether he should do it. And yet he is still going to do it.

Finally, David represents the potential inside each one of us to become the best versions of ourselves. Just as Michelangelo looked at a block of marble and saw a young hero inside, I think God looks at us each one of us as masterpieces hidden inside misshapen, otherwise useless hunks of rock. And I think we all should look at ourselves this way. David symbolizes what psychologists might call “the ideal self”, that heroic best version of each one of us: strong, lean, confident, purpose-driven, empowered, faithful, standing firm. Like David, that doesn’t mean we don’t have doubt and apprehension in our lives, but that we know who we are, where we stand, and who we serve, and we choose daily to act in accordance with those things. We are unashamed to run into battle, naked and carrying but five stones and a sling, to face off against the giant.

While I’ve never seen David in real life (I hope to someday), I bought a statuette of David that resides on my bookshelf. His name is Dave, and he serves as my daily reminder to pursue excellence and become the man God has made me to be—the man inside the marble, waiting and willing for the Great Artist to chip, carve, and smooth him out. To that end, I seek to face off against the giants of life every day, woefully unequipped by the world’s standards but equipped with the faith of Hebrews 11:1.

I hope you enjoyed this brief “dissertation” on my admiration for Michelangelo’s David. Does David mean something to you that I didn’t cover here? Do you have a different work of art that speaks to you in this way? I’d love to hear your perspective.

Until then, may we all seek to live by faith and let God use us how He wills to win His battles and bring Him glory, just as young David did.

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