Hidden symbolism in Bernini's 'David'


by Guy Shaked

Keywords: David, Davide, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Galleria Borghese, Shaked

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.

His body expresses the great phisical strain he is under, and his face expresses determination and concetration. David's pose is in accordance to that suggested by Leonardo Da Vinci for "when someone is to cast spears, stones or other similar things": "a has oriented his feet in this direction [i. e. the direction of his movement]. Having twisted and moved himself towards the other side, where he prepares for the application of his power, he pivots with speed and convenience towards the point at which he wishes to release the stone from his hands" [1]. It is also in that aspect similar to Polyphemus Furioso (painted on the "Galleria Farnese" cieling) by Carracci, a painter which also had influence on Bernini's religious creations.

Bernini's statue is faithful in most aspects to the biblical story: David is swinging the slingshot toward Goliath, while the armor he chose not to wear - lays at his feet. Because, Goliath is at some distance from David at this point in time, his figure is not included in the statue. It appears that Bernini saw importance in being familiar with the biblical scenes one is depicting in art, as is evident from his remark regarding the painting of the Crucifixion by Sarrazin [2].

Yet, the harp, which lays on the ground, and is half covered at David's feet - is not a part of the biblical descriptioon of the fight. It is rather a symbolic image, symbolizing David's artistic talents as a musician, which he had to leave behind, neglect somewhat, when he chose to volunteer to fight Goliath.

The fact that the harp is only half covered, parallels David's story in the Bible, since David returns later in his life to his destiny as an artist. The bible indeed tells us that David left music only for a period of time, to fight Goliath and save the people of Israel from the Philistine threat; and later in his life returns to it, as the Biblical text reveals.

It is possible therefor to see the perpendicular axis of the statue as a symbolic representation of David's life, in which the harp, armor, and slingshot symbolize the different stations in David's life:
In his youth, David was a harp player and a shepherd. He came to fight Goliath and save his people. Yet, after trying on a warrior's armor, he decided not to wear it, as he was unaccustomed to it. Using only his slingshot, he brought down the giant.
Following the fight, David became a war hero (wearing probably an armor like the one at his feet). Still later in his life, he eventually returns to play music on the harp, and composes the Psalms, which won him fame for generations.

That the harp on the ground is not a mere addition of David's emblem to otherwise realistic statue, is evident from the fact that all the Borgese statues by Bernini share common charectaristics in their vertical axis meaning their vertical axis was carefuly considered and designed. For example, in all the Borgese statues, the upper figure will soon die (Anchises, Daphna, Proserpina), in David's statue that figure is not visible as Goliath is not sculptured. Also, in all the statues the figure beneath the upper figure is in the act of using phisical strengh toward it (David, Aneas, Appolo, Pluto).

The statue was Bernini's first major work, which he completed at the age of only twenty-five. Bernini is said to have given David his own likeness, by sculpturing it while his patron was holding a mirror in front of him as he worked[3].
Bernini chose to sculpture the face of David, resembling his own, since as David in his time - he was facing his first and crucial test - one which if he successfully achieves - will win him too fame for generations.

His David is depicted as an artist (of war), using his hands as the means of his art. Both Bernini and David (at the time of his fight with Goliath) are young, at the start of their careers, facing a giant challenge. Both are attempting (in stone) to guaranty their future, delving their way in the surrounding space. The visitors to the Borghese, are amazed both by David's incredible victory over giant Goliath, and Bernini's masterful statue, that reigns victorious over all the surrounding art pieces.

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[1] M. Kemp (ed.), Leonardo on Painting, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 142-143

[2] Paul Freart de Chantelou,Diary of the Cavaliere Bernini's Visit to France, Margery Corbett (tr.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 168. When mentioning that the magi were kings (p. 289), Bernini was simply following the belief that their appearance was a prophetical fulfillment of psalm 71:10

[3] Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, Catherine Enggass (tr.), Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966, p. 13

Matthew Rankin (Dayton Uni.) A much better explanation on the Davids than was given in my art history class. Thanks!
Diana (Saint Leo Uni.) excellent. made for a very interesting study. I personally enjoyed your explanation better than that of my teacher.

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