In the “David,” we see what Christian humanism can accomplish, and in contemplating the gigantic little boy we can remember that God always uses the little things of the world to confound the mighty.
Last week I was in Florence, and while jostling with other sightseers to get a glimpse of Michelangelo’s David, I recalled an anecdote I’d heard years before. A man was standing with his eight-year-old son gazing up at Michelangelo’s amazing monument, and the boy said, “But Daddy! I thought you said David was a little boy!”
Indeed. David is not a little boy, but a magnificent young man, and standing at fourteen feet, the little boy who slew the giant has become a giant. No doubt much more handsome than the Philistine brute, still the boy David has become Goliath.
Just a short slingshot throw away you can see Donatello and Verrocchio’s versions—both of them standing about five foot and both of them young boys. Michelangelo completed his David in 1504, so he must have known the other two Davids, (Donatello’s was completed in 1440, Verrucchio’s in 1475). So why when the commission came in did he decide to create such a gigantic warrior?
In his book, How Shall We Then Live, the Calvinist thinker Francis Schaeffer theorized about it. He saw the David as the epitome of renaissance humanism:
In this statue we have man waiting with confidence in his own strength for the future. Even the disproportionate size of the hands says that man is powerful. This statue is idealistic and romantic. There was and is no man like the David…. Humanism was standing in its proud self and the David stood as a representation of that.
No doubt the Calvinist must be disapproving not only of David’s glorious nudity but with the doctrine of total depravity haunting his theology, such human perfection portrayed on a gigantic scale must be disconcerting.
Is David a monument to humanism? Is it therefore actually a hugely ironic statement—a gigantic testament to the hubris of humanism? Is David, therefore, an ogre-like Goliath with merely the outward form of beauty?
Methinks the Presbyterian doth protest too much.
I doubt if there are profound theological or philosophical meanings embedded in the marble. There are no hidden reasons for the size of the statue. Instead, the vestry of the cathedral commissioned an image to occupy a niche of a certain size for the exterior of the duomo. The block of marble was already there. Another artist had started on it and given up. David’s head and hands are oversized because they were designed to be seen from far below. The reasons for David’s grandeur are therefore practical.
We are all inclined to read into art our own ideas. Such is the ambiguity and plasticity of great art. While the Calvinist may frown disapprovingly at Michelangelo’s gigantic display of human greatness, another viewer might propose that David’s perfection is a sign of man’s greatness when he lives in obedience to God and sets out to fight evil in the world. Another preacher might hold forth: “You see in this magnificent perfection what each one of us might be if we, with the innocent obedience of a child, step out in faith to fell the Goliaths of this world.”
Michelangelo’s great work, therefore, may very well stand for the power and glory of humanism, but within the Catholic context, this is a specifically Christian humanism. Indeed, it was Christian humanism which flowered in the Renaissance. Rooted in the optimism that man was created in God’s image, the thinkers of the Renaissance were unashamed to extol the potential of Adam’s race empowered by grace.
A century before the great flowering of Florentine art, Petrarch planted the seeds. He drew inspiration from Livy, baptized by Augustine. His work sparked the study of the humanities—ancient languages, classical authors and the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric—and Scripture and the fathers of the church began to be integrated with classical wisdom. This is the legacy of our civilization, and the treasure we wish to pass on to another generation. As such David may very well stand as a potent symbol of what can be accomplished by Christian classical education in our day.
If the imaginative conservative sometimes feels daunted by the Philistinism of the world around him, he may look to David—who frowns in the direction of Goliath, ready to aim his sling. If those who are working hard to educate the young, preserve the ancient learning, cultivate the arts, and plant the seeds of a new Christendom are sometimes weary in well-doing, they may look to the muscular Christianity of Michelangelo and take heart. For in David we see not only the beauty of strength, but the strength of innocence.
In the David, we see what Christian humanism can accomplish, and in contemplating the gigantic little boy we can remember that God always uses the little things of the world to confound the mighty.
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