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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MIchelangelo's David-An Analysis-The Sculpture-The Biblical Narrative

We have considered the problems of visual artists working from a literary narrative. Michelangelo’s “ David” is an interesting example of an artist of one time and culture attempting to make work based on the narrative of another.
One of the underlying tensions in Christianity (never resolved) is its co-opting of Jewish narratives found in the Old Testament. This is particularly apparent in David. Drawn from Old Testament sources Michelangelo’s inspiration for David is nevertheless fundamentally Greek and European. The head is pure Greek, the nudity, youth, male body, the use of contraposto to add liveliness, the uncircumcised penis are all European rather than Semitic in origin.
The portrayed moment of the David/Goliath narrative is not the moment of high drama but before the stone is cast (or after, but most probably before) emphasizing not the drama of the narrative but the body.
Reading the actual narrative from the Old Testament underlines the point. Michelangelo’s Greek youth is nowhere to found in this ferocious story of virtuous bravery against duplicitous kings and powerful enemies. One of the repeated motifs of the biblical narrative is circumcision. The rite that separates the tribes of Israel from other Semitic peoples of the time. Not only are the Philistines characterised as “uncircumcised” but Saul the king promises David his daughter in marriage without the need for a dowry if he will bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines. David and his men (who appear from nowhere) bring 200 foreskins. ( How many parents would be horrified to find their children playing a video game with content like this ?)
The "David" Michelangelo produced has more in common with Greek and European modes of thinking and feeling and used the biblical narrative as an “excuse” to make a sculpture that perhaps satisfied his own or Renaissance taste for a “hero” but owed very little to the original narrative. Michelangelo's treatment of figures however was modified when he viewed the late classical "Laocoon" sculpture, unearthed in Rome the year before he started work on the Sistine Chapel, The "Laocoon" (see "Laocoon and his Sons-A Further Analysis" this blog) showed Michelangelo how to combine more effectively the use of “Greek” means with biblical narrative. This will be the basis of our analysis of the Sistine Chapel.
A small foretaste of this is apparent in Michelangelo’s second treatment of  " David" in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (see photograph below). A moment of high drama, the implication of extreme violence and clothing all emphasize the import of the original narrative.

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