(b. 1423, Castagno, d. 1457, Firenze)

The Youthful David

c. 1450
Tempera on leather on wood, width at bottom 115,6 x 41 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The unusual shape of this work is explained by its original use as a parade shield. Its painted scene is exceedingly rare -- most parade shields were decorated with simple coats of arms. This is, in fact, the only shield painted by a recognized master that has survived to the present day. It may have been carried in civic or religious processions or have been made as a sign of authority for a citizen-governor.

Images of young David, who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to kill the giant, were popular in fifteenth-century Florence, the smallest major power in Italy. The city saw itself threatened by such Goliaths as the pope, the duke of Milan, the king of Naples, and the doge of Venice. David's image is especially appropriate decoration for a shield since, throughout the Psalms, David's poetry echoes the notion of God as his shield: "His truth shall be thy shield and buckler" (Ps. 91.4).

Like many early Renaissance artists, Castagno has presented the action and its outcome simultaneously: David holds the loaded sling, but already the head of the slain Goliath lies at his feet. David's energetic pose, based perhaps on an ancient statue, creates a strong contour that would have been clear and "legible" as the shield was carried. Nevertheless, the youth's body is well modeled, rounded with light and shadow to give a convincing likeness of a body in action.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 11 minutes):
Johann Kuhnau: The Fight between David and Goliath (No. 1 of the 6 Stories from the Bible illustrated in music)