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Donatello’s David: A Prophetic Image Challenging Today’s Church

A Reflective Essay Based on The Sculptural Complexity Of A Renaissance Image And How it Embodies Scriptural Content Mary John Zore


Donatello’s David: A Prophetic Image Challenging Today’s Church By Mary John Zore

. I believe that Catholic art, for the willing pilgrim, has many possibilities of visual, and intellectual epiphanies frozen in the timeless visual forms of paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows or the architectural form of churches. A moment comes silently, as we focus on the visual form of the artwork, and by some granting of grace, a hidden meaning, a revelation—comes to light, similar to the process of mental prayer and meditation. My time in the classroom trying to encourage undergraduate students to experience these revelatory moments has also made me painfully aware of how Catholic culture has been impeded by ignorance of iconography over time. One example is the moment in every semester in the basic ‘Art Appreciation’ course, which I teach to undergraduates, when we look at the Renaissance and the ‘David:’ theme, so important to the sculpture tradition of that time period and I ask the obvious question: ‘How many present know the story from the Old Testament, which is the basis for these David and Goliath sculptures?’ So often, a pitiful, 4 or 5 students out of the 30 some present, may raise their hand. I can only hope some are not being completely honest and are simply ignoring the question. The duel problem of the basic ignorance of many students concerning biblical themes and symbols as well as the challenge some students may have ,to become focused and simply look at one object for an extended amount of time in order to study it, analyze it, assess it, and make connections and associations that have a sound basis, certainly makes teaching the full meaning of these statues or any artwork, that much more challenging. Catholic artwork especially has a trademark of being ‘metaphysical’ in its nature making this process very important. In terms of ‘seeing’ the art. But even modern day scholars, I fear, can miss the mark, since we have fallen so far away from ‘remembering’ the tenants of our faith, which would have been so clear to artists of other time periods. Many websites now proclaim that the Renaissance Italian artists were totally secular humanists. These websites claim that religious imagery is only a cover for political and social themes. I can understand that political/ social implications would be in the imagery but not that the religious meaning is lacking or not there at all. Indeed the approach of these artists was closer to the idea of ‘incarnating’ spirit with form, something very natural to a Catholic cultural-view based on a religion whose central teachings includes God incarnate in the person of Christ

One semester, as I was showing Donatello’s David on the classroom projector, I purposefully zoomed in for a close-up on the helmeted head of Goliath laying at David’s feet. While the students viewed the detail of the relief image, which shows the Ark of the Covenant being stolen by the Philistines. I pointed to the helmet and out of my mouth I heard these words, hardly knowing from whence they had come, “…and here, Donatello has identified for the viewer just who he considers ‘Goliath’ to be, and it is anyone who would steal the Presence of God from His people”. The words came quickly from my mouth and truly I felt as if someone else was standing there speaking them, for they surprised even me! Not missing a beat however, I explained what the Ark of the Covenant was and the significance it had for the Israelites as it contained the sacred “Presence” of God in their Tabernacle Tent. . The ‘David and Goliath’ theme in the Renaissance has been argued over time and by many modern scholars, all of whom, offer various interpretations giving the theme a content that is multi-leveled and complex, politically, historically, philosophically as well as religiously. Much like scripture there seems to be a literal content to this art as well as many other levels, which can be revealed through reflection and insight as layers of religious, political, even personal symbolic aspects become apparent to a viewer along with the obvious literal interpretation. The reference to the Ark of the Covenant must have been quite controversial during a time period prior to the Reformation when some denominations would actually remove the reserved Eucharist and tabernacle from churches and the belief in Christ’s True Presence was questioned and redefined in different ways.. .As I wrestled with the many different aspects of Donatello’s sculptural representation of David I began to see more and more that it really is one of those artworks that stands on the shoulders of art history with a message that rings as loud, clear and truthful in the day it was created as it does for the present day viewer, I hope that I can share some of my own reflections on how this amazing sculpture reaches into the heart of so many difficult and controversial issues. The first theme of Donatello’s ‘David”, which strikes us head on, has to do with the sensual nature of the sculpture. No one, not even the most ignorant of viewer, can look at this caste bronze image of a youthful nude male, with his adolescent curves, sensuous pose, fluid hair, smooth, flawless skin and effeminate qualities, without considering that there is some inherent theme of sensuality/sexuality present in the sculpture. Many modern scholars discuss this aspect related to the historic evidence that adolescent males were often introduced to sexuality in the Florentine society by older males before they

were latter married in their twenties, despite the fact that this was a criminal act. This can be seen in that court records from that time period, show that it was a commonly repeated scenario in Florentine society on the part of an older man, who would approach and seduce the younger male, almost like a rite of passage. According to some accounts this was done by the stealing of some form of personal property, often the hat of the younger man (Michael Rocke’s accounts from court cases in the 1400s), which would not be given back until the younger man agreed to the sexual act. (“Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence” by Michael Rocke, Oxford University press, 1996).


caught in an act of sodomy would have been a punishable crime for the perpetrator; however, it appears to some historians (Michael Rocke) as though society did not deem this act as a crime that would tarnish a man’s masculine identity, but that it was seen as a crime stemming from male virility. All this was quite common, according to author Michael Rocke, who has written extensively about the fifteenth century night courts and their recordings of this fairly common type of male-to-male relationship.. Perhaps this accounts for the floppy hat so noticeably placed on the head of Donatello’s ‘David’. Thus Donatello’s ‘David’ would have noticeably struck a cord in this culture as a tantalizing visual representation of a major societal fault, a crime, that was almost habitual in Florentine society and possibly something that Donatello, himself, had been accused of behind his back by local gossips for he is known to have had youthful male companions (artist workshops were normally filled with young male apprentices) One must ponder, could the artist have made the sculpture partly as a way of answering those gossiping rivals and critics by alluding to the truth or untruth of their idle talk? Was Donatello toying with his critics and cleverly placing before them an image which confronted them, turning their idle gossip into a taunt and even a form of accusation directed back at them. Indeed, for some modern scholars who argue for their own purposes the normalcy of homosexuality in other times and places, the Donatello ‘David” sculpture has become an instrument for supporting their political/social ends. You can still find various scholars arguing that Donatello did commit this crime, continuing the gossip of his own era. (Easy to do when the dead person can no longer respond to your claims.) But I would agree with others, that Donatello is taking a decidedly Catholic view and portraying this young David as an adolescent who has avoided the temptation and the sin and conquered the source of lust, which would have stolen the “Presence” of God from his soul. Indeed, the ‘David” statue argues strongly for purity and chastity rather than for any sin of impropriety. How do I support this point of view?

When scrutinized the sculpture has some clear clues in this regard. For one, the statue clearly has that hat, so beautifully floppy and obviously secure on the young man’s head while at the feet of David is the severed head of Goliath almost as a rebuke to any accuser. Another aspect of the sculpture to be considered is its original location and how viewers would have approached it. Donatello’s ‘David’ would have originally stood raised on a base, which placed it above any viewer’s own head, in a garden courtyard of the Medici family as a central focus. (Sarah Blake McHam, “Donatello’s bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici rule in Florence”, The Art Bulletin, March 01, 2001).

The curvaceous youth would have been placed in such a

way that viewers were well beneath it and would have been looking upward at the figure of David, while at their eye level would have been the severed head of Goliath (McHam). Donatello placed Goliath’s head in such a manner (eye to eye with the viewer) to show them their own base nature, which would have been revealed by their very own thoughts, if any of them even dared to look upward in a lustfully manner at the youthful David or to entertain such improper thoughts about Donatello and his youthful companions. The stone embedded in the middle of Goliath’s forehead seems aimed deftly at the viewer as well, almost like a ‘seeing eye’, which reveals the inner truth of the viewer’s thoughts and soul. Donatello’s ‘David’ is a sculptured as a mirror, and the viewer who gazes into it, must reveal his own identity: and answer the question “are you a Goliath or a David?”. Looking at the image further, we can see David as a symbol of a victorious pre-original sin Adam, who has conquered the tempter’s trap and indeed destroyed the tempter (crushed the head).. Like Christ, who crushes Satan’s head, this youthful ‘David’ stands in the Medici garden free of the shame of any sin and unself-conscious of his obvious nudity (this statue represented the first free standing male nude since antiquity). David’s vulnerability emphasized by the nudity and frontal, open pose, bespeaks of a compelling statement about the ‘goodness’ of the human form, created by God in His own image. The nudity speaks of David’s innocence as well as his wisdom. Donatello is giving a small homily here and the content is very much a ‘theology of the body’. Since David is the precursor of Christ who will also take the human form and die, naked, hung on a cross, Donatello is reminding his audience that the flesh and blood humanity of Christ, which came from David’s lineage, is something to be honored as ‘blessed’ and not something to be considered vile or shameful. The sculptural form seems to visually represent an unpolluted vision of man before the fall in the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve’s sin clouded their ability to see each other as children of God made in His Divine Image..In his nude depiction of David, Donatello allows only what is necessary in terms of clothing

details (the shepherd hat, open toed boots) which will add to this symbolic content and theme of pre-fall innocence, as we will see later. I feel certain these meanings are there if we take the time to find them while others may settle for some more common explanation that the clothing of hat and boots was merely added to confound critics and were intended as a way of making fun of their cries that the David sculpture was scandalous in its blatant nudity . Certainly, am sure that Donatello did enjoy that game as well. Donatello would jokingly say his statue ‘was not really nude’, for his ’David” did have that hat and boots on after all! The nudity of “David” is itself a strong statement about the shame-free innocence of our pre-original sin natures, and a strong assertion that man’s physical being should be viewed as having been inextricably marked with a sense of the Divine ‘Presence’ of God. This anti-Gnostic sculptural statement stands out in a perReformation time period where some more Puritan views (stemming from Albigensian and Neo-Platonism) continued in Puritanical philosophies extolling only the spiritual realms as being truly ‘good’. The hat, so often stolen by older men to gain sexual gratification, is topping David’s head so securely is like a victor’s crown, a sign that he is in complete possession of his own sexuality. The other thought, which occurs to a thoughtful viewing of the sculpture, is how much this image of David merges the natures of male and female sexual genders into one. Without the obvious tell-tale male genitals of the nude male adolescent which are prominently displayed, one might be tempted to think this was the body of a young preadolescent girl. The sensuous lines of a classical contrapposto pose, with one hip thrust outward, along with the slight body build Donatello gives his David, the long flowing hair and floppy hat trimmed with a festive garland, all add to the feminine nature of this anatomically male figure. The hermaphroditic identity is indeed intriguing in terms of possible interpretations, especially considered in regards to Genesis 3:15, the prophetically acclaimed passage of ultimate victory of good over evil, a theme so close to David’s battle with Goliath, seen as the enemy of God’s people. Genesis 3:15 is a passage, which prophesies the ultimate victory over the ‘serpent’ by the coming Messiah. But it is a passage largely addressed to Eve at the time of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In this passage the feminine identity of ‘The Woman” with “Her Seed”, are so intertwined, that there have been theological disputes over the exact meaning of the phraseology. What role does ‘The Woman’ play and what role is only that of ‘The Seed’? Various translations of this one verse show the struggle with sorting out if the final victory over the ancient serpent What aspect belongs to the ‘Woman”, the Seed” or ultimately to both? In a common Protestant view, the ‘Woman’ may have been interpreted, as being the Church :

rather than a specific feminine person and the ‘Seed’, of course is Christ, as the victorious Redeemer who conquers evil through His cross. The Catholic interpretation of this passage has always tended to point to Mary and Christ as being joined in this battle, Mary as being the Second Eve, the Woman, whose Seed, Jesus Christ,, as the second Adam, delivers the blow crushing Satan’s ‘Head”. The Duay Rheims Bble translates the verse as such, emphasizing the feminine to the point that it the words seem to point to the ‘woman’ as the one who delivers the final crushing blow to Satan’s ‘Head”. “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” We can see that Catholics tend to allow for the other levels of meaning as well, the ‘woman’ can be seen as the Church, being the “Bride” of Christ and the baptized members being the “Seed” of the Church, born through baptism. The theme of bride, bridegroom, and offspring are all significant and real and the verses become multi-level in their meaning. The translations and interpretations go back and forth between the Serpent, and the Woman and her offspring---the inter-tangling of Woman and Her Seed and the fact that both are in enmity with the serpent or tempter, tends toward the conclusion that victory is a ultimately, a co-operative action between both, even when a masculine identity is emphasized. Like the David story, human redemption ultimately is a co-operation between God and man. Christ is fully Divine and the Redeemer, but He has taken His humanity from the Woman (Mary) and both His natures are involved in Redemption. The Church as well, with its members, must co-operate with God, His Will and His grace in order to win victory over evil in the world. During this time period other artists had depicted the David figure in ways, which showed him as the predecessor of the Virgin Mary and linked him to this feminine identity in a very conscious fashion. (Reference Laurie Schneider, “Donatello’s Bronze David”, College Art Association, 1973)

Other evidence pointing to a hermaphroditic interpretation includes the other article of clothing Donatello gives His David, which are open-toed boots-- an unusual way to show boots, I would say. The open toes tend to make the boots into a form, which clearly resemble sandals. This fact, along with the detail that there is a feather which rises up the inner side of one of David’s thighs, open up an interpretation that these boots may refer to mythological references to a classical god who also had winged sandals, namely Hermes, who was the messenger of the gods in classical mythology, sent to tell the wishes of the gods to the people Similarly, Christ, the Incarnate Word, is the messenger of the Father sent to tell all

mankind, the wishes of His Eternal Father. Since God is ultimately a genderless pure Spirit, the reference to Hermes (who had a Son who was given a hermaphroditic nature) is replete with theological implications. Christ, as Son of the Father (Divine, Pure, Eternal Spirit) and Son of Mary (human creature, finite, perfectly redeemed and preserved from sin by grace) is indeed an Incarnate Divinity encompassing the two natures in perfect union. Thus Donatello achieves a form that has nuances indicating this great theological mystery ,and although we see only ‘David’, in the outward literal form, the sculptures has within it the hidden identities of both Mary and her Divine Son for Christ is the ultimate David. and the Old Testament counterpart to David would be Judith, whose song of joy and victory after severing the head of Holofernes is directly echoed by Mary ‘s Magnificat response to Elizabeth’s greeting in the Gospel of Luke. (an image of Judith was placed close to Donatello’s ‘David’ in the Medici garden according to art historian Sarah Blake McHam)

This is the amazing truth about Donatello’s sculpture! Looking carefully we can begin to appreciate how much the hermaphroditic nature of the adolescent boy is suited to expressing the biblical prophecy in Genesis 3:15. Donatello’s ‘David’, thus masterfully represents Jesus and Mary, the Bridegroom and the Bride, the Woman and her ‘Seed”, Indeed, the Church and the Church’s Offspring born through Baptism are all present metaphorically in this image. Look closely and you will find in David’s features, including the long locks of hair, beardless, smooth face and effeminate slight build, the hidden form of Mary, Christ’s Mother, the ‘Perpetual Virgin’, the Immaculately Conceived ‘Woman’ who is at enmity with God’s foes from the first moment of her miraculous conception. Indeed Donatello (as were other artists of the time period) was well aware that Mary was from the royal lineage of David the King, making this interpretation seems quite natural. This connection between David and Mary, as I pointed out earlier, was part of the iconography in other artwork of the 1400s (Laura Schneider). This is an interesting iconographical consideration since if a ‘hermaphroditic’ beardless youth could have been used as a means of interpreting Genesis 3:15, the woman and her seed, one is forced to consider the fact that John the Apostle is also often shown in this way in Renaissance artwork, as a beardless fifteen year old youth. John is portrayed in his own Gospel as the one who stands beneath the cross at Calvary and it is John who is told by Christ “Behold your Mother”, thus indicating a sense of lineage (offspring) being established. The pattern is being repeated of union between masculine and feminine. Could the iconography in Donatello’s sculpture of a ‘hermaphroditic’ youth also be used to explain the feminine qualities, which often are used to portray John the

Apostle in such Renaissance artwork, as the Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci? Could a feminized appearance of a young male be a way of showing the union between Mary and Christ, between Bride and Bridegroom (Christ and His Church) and as such is religious iconography, understood in its day as a way of to interpret Genesis 3:15? Indeed various mystics, in particular Elisabeth of Schonau (1128-1164) had visionary experiences including the following which seem to have a way of merging Christ’s identity with Mary in a startling fashion: “While we were celebrating the vigil of the birth of our Lord, around the hour of the divine service, I came into a trance and I saw, as it were, a sun of marvelous brightness in the sky. In the middle of the sun was the likeness of a virgin hose appearance was particularly beautiful and desirable to see. She was sitting with her hair spread over her shoulders, a crown of the most resplendent gold on her head, and a golden cup in her right hand. A splendour of great brightness came forth from the sun, by which she was surrounded on all sides, and from her it seemed to fill first the place of our dwelling, and then after a while spread out little by little to fill the whole world. “ (History Enlightened Blog, John Noyce, (

According to “History Enlightened” a blog website by John Noyce, with information on Elisabeth’s vision, she was given two explanations for this way of seeing Christ:. “A ‘holy angel of the Lord’ told her: “The virgin you see is the sacred humanity of the Lord Jesus. The sun in which the virgin is sitting is the divinity that possesses and illuminates the whole humanity of the Saviour. At the prompting of her (male) advisers, Elisabeth asked in a subsequent vision why this ‘humanity of the Lord Saviour’ had been shown to her in the form of a virgin and not in a masculine form. John the Evangelist responded by saying: The Lord willed it to be done in this way so that the vision could so much more easily be adapted to also signify His blessed mother.” (History Enlightened Blog, John Noyce, http://

This account may or may not have been known by Donatello, but it is interesting that so many of these artists have shown John the Apostle in this fashion as an effeminate image, which merges male and female qualities. You may explain it as pertaining to his youth (tradition puts John at 15) at the time of the crucifixion but it also may have a metaphysical or metaphorical content, given the tendency of artists in that time period to load images with such iconography. Clearly Donatello’s David is shown as masculine in gender and his David is also a forerunner of the second Adam, Christ, the future Good Shepherd and Messiah, who would trammel on evil by coming in the disguise of a vulnerable human being destined to die on the cross. Christ would die naked, hiding His Divinity to the point that He refuses to call forth any army of angels or even whisper a word of complaint. Donatello’s David theme is replete with the Christian belief that it is ‘the meek who will inherit the earth’ by

conquering evil through their humility, and their whole-hearted dependence on the Divine power of God. In a Church rocked with scandals and rift with division, I find the ‘David’ sculpture by Donatello to be as compelling and moving today as it must have been to its Florentine patrons. Indeed it stands prophetically before us—the helmeted head of Goliath stares at us, with the half open eyes, and the stone planted dead center in the forehead. The sculpture repeats its’ timeless query: “have we been complicit in that act of stealing God’s Presence, whether it be through thought, word or deed?” Donatello’s masterful artwork still challenges today’s Church to reclaim its innocence, and to uncover its mission as a winged messenger of God’s Will for all peoples, by living the unconditional faith of the long-ago shepherd boy, who like the Virgin of Nazareth, staked everything on the belief that:” … no word shall be impossible with God” (Luke1: 27) Recently the art history world has uncovered evidence that the political theme of David, tied to Florence’s conquest of her rivals, was heralded by an inscription that was formerly on the base of Donatello’s David “The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold! A boy overcame a great tyrant. Conquer, o citizens!" (Sarah Blake McHam) The Bronze David stand as a prophet before us, and as Christians can we not hear God calling to us through this sculpture once again, “Arise O Citizens”. Our fatherland is indeed under attack. Have we lost our faith and courage? Have we become through neglect of our traditions and faith the Goliaths? Have we lost the ‘Presence” of God, so evident in the ignorance of our faith in my classroom, through our neglect and our own lack of zeal? Have we been separated by stealth from our belongings and seduced into a new form of faith, which barely resembles the old? And most importantly, have we lost the true sense of Christ’s humanity, a humanity, which was clothed by God, Himself, in Immaculately Conceived Mary, Ever-Virgin and the Second Eve?


Sarah Blake McHam, Donatello’s bronze David and Judith as Metaphors of Medici rule in Florence, The Art Bulletin, March 01, 2001 John Noyce, History Enlightened Blog,

Laurie Schneider, Donatello’s Bronze David, College Art Association, 1973

Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence Oxford University press, 1996

“Lord, Show us Thy Face And we shall be saved…” Holy Face Studio

Humanism and Donatello's David  

This article has been edited. The article is about a sculpture by Donatello from the Renaissance of the "David and Goliath" theme. This scul...