The Western art tradition is filled with repetitive motifs, that appear across many periods with variations and adaptions to fit current trends but are ultimately of the same event. Due to the development of Christianity alongside this art tradition Bible stories and religious themes are often the basis of those motifs. However, society has been moving quickly away from the days where Christian symbols are easily understandable to the average person just as art has moved in to new areas like advertising or popular media. Its is this movement into the more publicly accessible sphere that enables an interesting endeavor in comparative art history through the examination of several hundred years of David statues. The biblical story of David and Goliath begins with the Renaissance but continues into modern times with thriving tourist industries to the old statues and usage in other forums like ad campaigns. The examination of these statues shows the way that David has moved from a young man blessed by God to a figure who is used in reference to a statue rather than religion.
Artists whose names are now mostly associated with ninja turtles begin the creation of the well-known David statues during the Renaissance period – although Donatello and Michelangelo took very different approaches. Donatello’s David is shown as a young boy, the encounter with Goliath being the looming threat of manhood on his horizon. This version emphasises the relative weakness of David while the viewer is aware that he will ultimately go on to defeat the giant. Michelangelo’s version is in many ways quite distant from Donatello’s even though they are completed only 64 years apart. This more famous version of David is larger than life and in the form of an idealized man who is well muscled and completely naked. Michelangelo shows David looking contemplative as if he is taking the time to consider when to release his stone.
Bernini was working over a century after Michelangelo and in typical baroque fashion his David is dynamic and shown in motion in a way that the earlier versions were not. This David is neither excessively young nor excessively beautiful and instead has his face screwed up in concentration as he hurls the stone out of his sling. This sculpture is not interested in David as he was before Goliath, or even as he was after but rather considers the moment of action and transformation.
There are undoubtedly many more David statues between Bernini and the modern day, but they do not have the same recognizable power of the earlier statues and Samsung relied on the staying power of Michelangelo’s David for their 2018 ad campaign. In this “Domestic David” Michelangelo’s David is wearing a jock strap with a t-shirt draped over his shoulder instead of a sling as he stands atop a washing machine, in this context he becomes a commentary on masculinity and an attempt to sell products rather than a representation of a Bible story.
The early versions of the David statue explored the nature of the biblical feature and how that figure, as well as his actions, should be represented. The repurposing of David in the Samsung Domestic David removed those biblical elements because instead of relying on the audience’s knowledge of the Bible the statue relies on the viewer’s knowledge of Michelangelo’s David. The Domestic David is entertaining because it is a reimagining of original David statue in a context that the audience does not expect. The initial impression of the statue is not tied to the Bible story anymore but is instead connected to a notion of the David statue as an important art work. Religion is no longer the basis of the layers of meaning that art objects contain but is rather engaged in the history of Western art.
This chain of David statues is a testament to the influence that Christianity has held over Western art but its reappearance in advertising also indicates the changing place of both religion and history. David statues offer an opportunity to compare like with like and so wee how the view of the unchanged story of David has shifted over time from that of a young boy, to an idealized man, to an action hero to an icon that can be used casually in a capitalist setting. The journey of art from religion to advertising is a part of general Western art history but it is more obvious when there is the opportunity to examine the representations of a singular figure over time. David serves this purpose particularly well because unlike other popular Christian figures like the prophets, Jesus or the apostles David’s story is much more limited in scope and revolves around a singular event.
Lewis and Lewis The Power of Art third edition, 2019.