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The many faces of David

John Launer
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hci118 777-778 First published online: 17 September 2005

Ask anyone to think of an image of David and they will almost certainly call to mind the sculpture by Michelangelo. The original version is in the Accademia in Florence, with full size copies dotted around that city and elsewhere, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. You can also buy kitsch reproductions by the thousand, including David fridge magnets complete with a range of suggestive, removable clothing. We are indeed so familiar with Michelangelo's image that we forget how surprising it is, as a representation of the young hero. To see a sculpture that is more consistent with the biblical description of a boy shepherd, you might take a few minutes’ walk from the Accademia to the Bargello Palace. There, you can see an earlier bronze statue by Donatello. It shows a younger, more fragile boy, barely past puberty, with a sword in his right hand, and with his left foot resting on the grotesque severed head of Goliath.

There are more persuasive images of David even than this. In the Prado in Madrid, for example, there is a Caravaggio showing David clearly dressed as a farm boy. He is leaning over the giant he has just slain, meditating on his achievement and perhaps on the many other trials that will soon befall him. One such trial is shown in Rembrandt's magnificent painting ‘David playing the harp before Saul’, now in the Hague. Here, the enfeebled and deranged King Saul leans on his spear while his elfin protégé plays the harp in semi-darkness in the background, in order to sooth his master's troubled soul. Rembrandt did not have to depict the climax of this episode for us to guess what is going on: ‘And on the next day, an evil …