MICHELANGELO Buonarroti
(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

David and Goliath

1509
Fresco, 570 x 970 cm
Cappella Sistina, Vatican

David was a shepherd boy who became king of Israel. Much legend appears to surround the biblical account of this complex and many-sided personality. He was a bandit chief, a warrior and a statesman; he made Israel a united kingdom and captured Jerusalem, making it his capital; he was a musician and was traditionally believed to be the author of the Psalms; as a king he was not above intrigue which brought about the death of his mistress' husband. He is important in Christian art not merely as the 'type' or prefiguration of Christ; according to Matthew he was a direct ancestor.

The fight of David and Goliath (I Sam. 17:38-51) is often depicted in art. The armies of the Philistines and Israelites were ranged against each other. Goliath of Gath, the Philistines' champion, was over eight feet tall with a helmet of brass, a coat of mail and greaves of brass on his legs; he had a spear like a weaver's beam. David refused the armour Saul offered him (though he is sometimes wrongly portrayed wearing it) and instead took five stones for his sling, putting them in his scrip, or bag. The affair was soon over. The two combatants approached exchanging taunts. David took a stone from his bag, slung it and struck Goliath on the forehead, felling him. He then quickly took the Philistine's own sword and cut off his head. This was the signal for the Israelites to attack and they routed the enemy. The story was made a prefiguration of Christ's temptation in the desert, by the devil, and was used in a wider context to symbolize the victory of right over wrong.

Michelangelo's fresco depicts the last moment of the cutting off the head of Holofernes before the soldiers in the background. Out of the darkness a blinding light illuminates the figures of the protagonists - David and Goliath - locked in mortal combat, with a field tent in the background, while, in the corners on both sides, faces of soldiers may be discerned in the shadows.

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)