Iconography and Context: According to Janson, "this is the first life sized free standing sculpture since antiquity." The figures size and pose are almost direct references to the classical tradition of casting idealized athletic figures in bronze with the lost wax process as evinced by the Doryphoros and Riace Bronzes (although they would not have been familiar with the bronzes since they were discovered in the 1970's). In this way, Donatello would have combined the Bible story of David and Goliath with the classical and humanistic concept of kalos. In effect, he was uniting both a theological and neoplatonic/humanistic point of view.
The iconography also points towards a political point of view. The Italian city states were constantly at war with each other. For example, Florence thought of themselves as the "David" to Rome's Goliath. In this case, David is standing atop Goliath's head who sports a helmet. According to Janson's Art History, the "elaborate helmet of Goliath with visor and wings, (is) a unique and implausible feature that can only refer to the dukes of Milan, who had threatened Florence." For Janson, the hat David sports is then a reference to peace.
You may find Donatello's David a little bit ridiculous looking in his sun hat and almost effeminate stance and you are in good company. Irving Stone's the chapter entitled "The Giant" from the book The Agony and the Ecstasy excerpted in Liaisons (page 164) Michelangelo explains why he thinks Donatello's version of David is ridiculous.
Stone quotes the Bible extensively in his passage. Read the whole thing for yourself here and (I know it's a crazy idea), maybe you might even want to look it up in Liaisons!
Chapter 17 (David and Goliath)
The Philistines rallied their forces for battle at Socoh in Judah and camped between Socoh and Azekah at Ephes-dammim.
Saul and the Israelites also gathered and camped in the Vale of the Terebinth, drawing up their battle line to meet the Philistines.
The Philistines were stationed on one hill and the Israelites on an opposite hill, with a valley between them.
A champion named Goliath of Gath came out from the Philistine camp; he was six and a half feet tall.
He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a bronze corselet of scale armor weighing five thousand shekels,
1and bronze greaves, and had a bronze scimitar slung from a baldric.
2 The shaft of his javelin was like a weaver's heddle-bar, and its iron head weighed six hundred shekels. His shield-bearer went before him.
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel: "Why come out in battle formation? I am a Philistine, and you are Saul's servants. Choose one of your men, and have him come down to me.
If he beats me in combat and kills me, we will be your vassals; but if I beat him and kill him, you shall be our vassals and serve us."
The Philistine continued: "I defy the ranks of Israel today. Give me a man and let us fight together."
Saul and all the men of Israel, when they heard this challenge of the Philistine, were dismayed and terror-stricken.
3 (David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. He had eight sons, and in the days of Saul was old and well on in years.
The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to war; these three sons who had gone off to war were named, the first-born Eliab, the second son Abinadab, and the third Shammah.
David was the youngest. While the three oldest had joined Saul,
David would go and come from Saul to tend his father's sheep at Bethlehem.
(Meanwhile the Philistine came forward and took his stand morning and evening for forty days.
(Now Jesse said to his son David: "Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves for your brothers, and bring them quickly to your brothers in the camp.
Also take these ten cheeses for the field officer. Greet your brothers and bring home some token from them.
Saul, and they, and all Israel are fighting against the Philistines in the Vale of the Terebinth."
Early the next morning, having left the flock with a shepherd, David set out on his errand, as Jesse had commanded him. He reached the barricade of the camp just as the army, on their way to the battleground, were shouting their battle cry.
The Israelites and the Philistines drew up opposite each other in battle array.
David entrusted what he had brought to the keeper of the baggage and hastened to the battle line, where he greeted his brothers.
While he was talking with them, the Philistine champion, by name Goliath of Gath, came up from the ranks of the Philistines and spoke as before, and David listened.
When the Israelites saw the man, they all retreated before him, very much afraid.
The Israelites had been saying: "Do you see this man coming up? He comes up to insult Israel. If anyone should kill him, the king would give him great wealth, and his daughter as well, and would grant exemption to his father's family in Israel."
David now said to the men standing by: "What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and frees Israel of the disgrace? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine in any case, that he should insult the armies of the living God?"
They repeated the same words to him and said, "That is how the man who kills him will be rewarded."
When Eliab, his oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he grew angry with David and said: "Why did you come down? With whom have you left those sheep in the desert meanwhile? I know your arrogance and your evil intent. You came down to enjoy the battle!"
David replied, "What have I done now?--I was only talking."
Yet he turned from him to another and asked the same question; and everyone gave him the same answer as before.
The words that David had spoken were overheard and reported to Saul, who sent for him.)
Then David spoke to Saul: "Let your majesty not lose courage. I am at your service to go and fight this Philistine."
But Saul answered David, "You cannot go up against this Philistine and fight with him, for you are only a youth, while he has been a warrior from his youth."
Then David told Saul: "Your servant used to tend his father's sheep, and whenever a lion or bear came to carry off a sheep from the flock,
I would go after it and attack it and rescue the prey from its mouth. If it attacked me, I would seize it by the jaw, strike it, and kill it.
Your servant has killed both a lion and a bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be as one of them, because he has insulted the armies of the living God."
David continued: "The LORD, who delivered me from the claws of the lion and the bear, will also keep me safe from the clutches of this Philistine." Saul answered David, "Go! the LORD will be with you."
Then Saul clothed David in his own tunic, putting a bronze helmet on his head and arming him with a coat of mail.
David also girded himself with Saul's sword over the tunic. He walked with difficulty, however, since he had never tried armor before. He said to Saul, "I cannot go in these, because I have never tried them before." So he took them off.
Then, staff in hand, David selected five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in the pocket of his shepherd's bag. With his sling also ready to hand, he approached the Philistine.
With his shield-bearer marching before him, the Philistine also advanced closer and closer to David.
When he had sized David up, and seen that he was youthful, and ruddy, and handsome in appearance, he held him in contempt.
The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog that you come against me with a staff?" Then the Philistine cursed David by his gods
and said to him, "Come here to me, and I will leave your flesh for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field."
David answered him: "You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted.
Today the LORD shall deliver you into my hand; I will strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will leave your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.
All this multitude, too, shall learn that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves. For the battle is the LORD'S, and he shall deliver you into our hands."
The Philistine then moved to meet David at close quarters, while David ran quickly toward the battle line in the direction of the Philistine.
David put his hand into the bag and took out a stone, hurled it with the sling, and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone embedded itself in his brow, and he fell prostrate on the ground.
(Thus David overcame the Philistine with sling and stone; he struck the Philistine mortally, and did it without a sword.)
Then David ran and stood over him; with the Philistine's own sword (which he drew from its sheath) he dispatched him and cut off his head.When they saw that their hero was dead, the Philistines took to flight.
Then the men of Israel and Judah, with loud shouts, went in pursuit of the Philistines to the approaches of Gath and to the gates of Ekron, and Philistines fell wounded along the road from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.
On their return from the pursuit of the Philistines, the Israelites looted their camp.
4 David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he kept Goliath's armor in his own tent.
(When Saul saw David go out to meet the Philistine, he asked his general Abner, "Abner, whose son is that youth?" Abner replied, "As truly as your majesty is alive, I have no idea."
And the king said, "Find out whose son the lad is."
So when David returned from slaying the Philistine, Abner took him and presented him to Saul. David was still holding the Philistine's head.
Saul then asked him, "Whose son are you, young man?" David replied, "I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem."
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