King David was a popular subject in both medieval and Renaissance art. He appeared in many guises, from young shepherd boy, to victorious warrior, to troubled but triumphant old king.

David appeared in medieval Christian art from the third century, often as a prefiguration or "ancestor" of Christ. Typology, the technique of interpreting a character from the Hebrew Bible as a New Testament figure, was a popular practice in medieval art. Characters were typified as both figures and events. The death of Absalom, for example, was reinterpreted as a prefiguration of the crucifixion. Bathsheba was represented as the Virgin Mary.

Beginning around 1200, Byzantine art gave birth to the Cycle technique of depiction; favorite biblical stories, including the ones in the books of Samuel and Kings, were painted in multiple scenes enclosed in frames. Telltale elements crept into the cycles, betraying features of daily life. For example, in one English Psalter (prayerbooks containing Psalms; according to tradition, David is the author of Psalms), David is portrayed playing the organ. Another cycle depicted Joshua dressed in the obligatory pointed hat that distinguished Jew from gentile in the Middle Ages.

Detail from six scenes from a tree of Jesse window
King David, Germany, Swabia (?), c1290-1300
pot-metal and glass; 24 1/4 x 14 in
(64.x x 35.5 cm)
view enlargement

Jesus' genealogy as listed in the Book of Matthew and foretold in Isaiah (11:10) — "On that day a scion from the root of Jesse shall be set up as a signal to the peoples" — was popularly depicted in the form of a tree growing from the side of King David's father, Jesse. Popular in French stained glass since the 12th century, this visualization underwent a transformation in Germany a century later. Rather than tracing the kingly lineage of Christ, the German interpretation illustrated scenes of Christ's life juxtaposed with Old Testament prototypes.

This representation of King David holding his emblematic harp is one of six panels from a German Tree of Jesse window that represents a transitional stage in the evolution of Christ and from his Passion, while retaining the genealogical figure of King David.

Pictures of David adorn many illuminated medieval Psalters , in most — praising God by playing the harp or lyre. Carolingian Psalters before the year 1000 show David in typological fashion as Jesus, surrounded by his four musicians, Asaph, Heman, Ethan, and Jeduthun, representing the four Evangelists.

In Renaissance Florence, much had changed. David had become a political symbol. Lifelike statues of young David triumphant from his battle with Goliath were sculpted by Donatello, Michelangelo, and Verrocchio for the Medici family. Art historians argue that in these and other depictions of the young David, the biblical hero was meant to symbolize the anti-tyrant republican virtues of Florence, and even personify the city itself.[1]

This view has been disputed, but it is certain that the David the Renaissance Florentines inherited from medieval Christianity was shaped by the biblical David; this was the David who danced before God, who refused to go to battle without first requesting God's favor, and who made sacrifices of thanks to God for his victories. With these actions, David had come to symbolize a ruler whose power is sanctioned by God and whose people's electedness is divine, two factors which together guarantee civic harmony.[2] Employing this symbolism, Charles the Bald and other ninth century Carolingian emperors frequently had themselves depicted as David.

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04
Galleria dell' Academia, Florence, Italy


[1] This thesis was first advanced by Frederick Hartt in "Art and Freedom in Quattrocento Florence," in L. Sandler, Ed. Essays in Memory of Karl Lehman, Locust Valley, NY, 1964, pp.114-131.[back]

[2] Andrew Butterfield. "New Evidence for the Iconography of David in Quattrocento Florence." Tatti Studies, 1995 (No. 6), pp.115-133.[back]

KING DAVID Table of Contents




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