His foot placed firmly on the gigantic helmet as a sign of victory, his arm leaning nonchalantly into his side. On his face the amused smile of somebody who does not seem the slightest bit surprised by his own winning, and his exposed body not of a warrior but of a boy. This is what David looked like after defeating the giant Goliath, through the eyes of Donatello (c. 1386 – 13 December 1466), the Florence born Renaissance master sculptor.
And so, this is how his David would be born. In the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence stands Donatello’s statue, cast in bronze in the 15th century and commissioned by the church. I had chosen to write about it when my art history class assigned me to write a piece on a famous piece of sculpture. After some research, I soon came to realize how little I knew of this statue’s background story. A shame.
It is the background stories which, besides the delicate carving and producing of these works, sets their foundations, and the controversies they bring forth even by the way an arm or leg is placed. This sculpture, too, turned scandalous; the giant helmet’s feathers had been designed to lift upright between his legs, stroking along his right thigh. A sign of sexuality frowned upon. Such subtle hints we still do not know were intentional or not.
What we do know was intentional, and what is most peculiar about this statue, however, is his body as a whole. The soft, innocent shapes of David was unusual in its context; the power of warriors and soldiers was often visibly translated through the body itself by the evident physical strength and size of them. Donatello chose to portray a boy, the young body of someone not destined for war and who would not survive one. But, and this was the message; through the power of god even a small boy like David could win a battle. What he lacked in physical strength he made up for with his unquestioned religious faith. A strange kind of magical delirium which turns a boy into a godly warrior.
It is a theme, this almost supernatural faith, that I have seen not only through visual art but also in literature, and not only purely corresponding with religion. A faith which turns a man into half-god, immune not only to defeat but also to weakness, like David, and, in other cases, unsusceptible to any possible obstacle a man may face. While thinking about this, and the literature I myself have read, one character which came to my mind struck me the most, a character who had lived a life of mediocrity before he drowned in his own delirium and believed himself free from all things including law and everything that comes with it. The tragedy, that of Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, however, is that his faith wastes him away.
Although David and Raskolnikov seem to have nothing in common, and certainly, in most aspects, they do not, what I found in both their stories was a strange, otherworldly force that transforms a boy into a warrior and a man into a murderer. How strange, I thought, what faith in god or in oneself can do. How carefully one should moderate it, I realized then.
Solomonica de Winter is a Dutch Tel-Aviv based artist and author. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram.