We’ve all heard of David, the biblical hero who defeated the Philistine warrior Goliath with a well-placed slingshot, whether it be from the Bible story or from the many depictions of him through the centuries. Why David has found so many outlets for artist’s inspiration and depiction is a large task that would cover more than one single blog post. However, we can focus on a portrayal of the young man during the Baroque era. Through this, we can find several different reasons and influences on the work. For Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s representation of David takes such a dramatic turn that the reasoning and inspiration becomes a predominate question.
But first, let’s take a quick look at probably the two most popular and prominent depictions of David before Bernini. First, Donatello’s David, which shows our hero in a somewhat surreal light in terms of what we are accustom. He holds a sword instead of the slingshot, wears a flowered hat and maintains a posture that tends to exude the opposite attitude of that of a conquering biblical hero (even if he is standing on Goliath’s head) (Bernini’s David Smarthistory). We then move to Michelangelo’s David, held as one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring portrayals of David ever seen. Here we have almost a perfect example of the human body, with sculpted (literally, I know…) features and a calm demeanor. A true inspiring hero that you could imagine would have no trouble with a giant.
These two depictions exemplify the Humanist view that permeated the Renaissance era. As time went on, however, the Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, not only fed on this turn in societal preference, but inspired many different artists during the Renaissance to produce more art, both visual and otherwise. This, of course, came to the horror of the Pope and the Catholic Church, who were finding themselves on the losing edge of a battle for the hearts and minds of people they have cajoled for years. With that, came the Council of Trent, set up by the Church in order to strategize and find a way to rebuild their image and gather back their once faithful followers. While Bernini was not the first artist that was influenced by this doctrine in the Baroque era, he certainly demonstrates the ideals that the Church was trying to achieve during this period.
So, in around 1623, we find Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioning a new depiction of David from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who had already had a history with fulfilling commissions from the Church, which would later propel him to higher esteem in the eyes of the future Pope Urban VIII(Bernini in Rome). Above, we already see Bernini’s David is a stark contrast to those of the past. I want to use a great quote I found and build upon this author’s interpretation:
“The statue of David, by Bernini, depicts David in a crucial moment in his life. The young man (only twenty years old) stands in front of Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior, facing a battle of life and death. He shed the armor of the warriors which he was given, since he was not accustomed to, wearing heavy armor, and using only the slingshot (a shepherd’s weapon), attempts to hit the giant.
“David gathered momentum, and for a part of a second stands motionless, as he is taking aim, before throwing the stone at Goliath. His body expresses the great physical strain he is under, and his face expresses determination and concentration.”
– Guy Shaked (Hidden Symbolism David)
One of the key ideals that were emphasized in the Trent council was the simplification of art and its ability to tell a story. In the quote above, we can see how much Bernini’s depiction matches this doctrine passed down years earlier. Instead of the usual calm, collected pieces that we are able to sit and contemplate, Bernini gives us the story straight, going so far as to almost throw it in your face if you were to believe that a sculpture could come to life. However, I beg that you do not think that this makes his piece dumbed down or trite. Instead of having to reflect on the story yourself, Bernini’s David almost puts you between David and Goliath literally, where you cannot mistake what the story being told is. This makes Bernini’s David the ideal Baroque piece that one could choose to study.
“Bernini’s David” smarthistory.org. Smarthistory. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
“Bernini in Rome: David” Rome.info. Rome.Info. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
“Hidden Symbolism in Bernini’s ‘David’” guyshaked.com. 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
23 Feb. 2011.