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Subjects of the Visual Arts: David and Jonathan  
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David and Goliath

Not surprisingly, David's defeat of Goliath has witnessed an iconographic transformation nearly as complex as that associated with Michelangelo's David. Because the Bible calls attention to Goliath's awareness of David's beauty, some readers speculate that Goliath was defeated by the sight of David's beauty rather than by the stone that the boy fired from his slingshot.

Donatello's famous bronze (ca 1430-1440) presents David as a nude ephebe whose left foot stands triumphantly upon the severed head of his enemy. The ambisexual grace of the boy--coupled with the triumph of Cupid depicted on the defeated Philistine's helmet, and the curve of the helmet's plume along the inside of the naked boy's thigh, sinuously inching towards his buttocks--suggests a celebration of love.

Donatello's supposed representation of himself as Goliath initiated a tradition in which a homosexual artist depicts himself as the defeated giant, and his male beloved as the beautiful, victorious boy.

Caravaggio, for example, painted three versions of David with the head of Goliath, suggesting an obsession with the motif. In David II (ca 1606, Galleria Borghese), Caravaggio's lover Cecco Boneri posed as David, whose loosely fastened trousers call attention to his crotch, and whose sharply angled sword suggests sexual violence; the head of Goliath that the boy holds at arm length is clearly the artist's self-portrait.

Paul Cadmus's Study for a David and Goliath (1971) offers a playful variation upon this iconographic tradition, presenting a domestic scene in which Cadmus sits on the floor drawing, his back supported by the bed on which his lover, Jon Andersson, partly reclines.

The T-square that the naked Andersson holds to help the artist in his work becomes a sword, while the red scarf around Cadmus's neck suggests the bloody severing of the artist's/Goliath's head from his body.

Andersson, a dancer by profession, whose perfectly muscled body was drawn repeatedly by Cadmus in the course of their long partnership, grins malevolently at the viewer, possibly suggesting--in biographer David Leddick's words--"how beauty can undo the importance of art in an artist's life."

The Representation of David and the Artist's Sexual Orientation

Like the story of martyred St. Sebastian, the narrative of David's victory over Goliath provided biblical justification for the representation of naked male beauty of which numerous Renaissance artists, both gay and straight, availed themselves.

Too sensuous a representation of naked David, however, has proved enough to raise questions regarding an artist's sexual orientation, as in the cases of Aubin Vouet's depiction of an boy in David Holding the Head of Goliath (ca 1622-1626, Bordeaux) and Guido Reni's David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (ca 1605, Louvre).

In the latter, the teenaged boy's sensuality is emphasized by the rich fur draped across his torso, and by the unnecessarily jaunty plume in his fashionable cap. The head of Reni's Goliath is apparently a portrait of the artist's professional rival, Caravaggio, suggesting that the painting may be a comment upon what contemporaries perceived to be the sexual irregularities of Caravaggio's life.

Indeed, throughout the history of the motif, the severed head of the boy's adult male admirer suggests the danger of the gaze, whether biblically authorized or not, that David's naked beauty invites, making the motif one of the most psychologically complex in the history of the representation of desire.

David and Jonathan

Finally, the biblical narrative's emphasis upon David's relationship with Jonathan, the son of David's predecessor Saul, adds another homoerotic dimension to his representation. "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David," the narrator records, "and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam. 18:1).

Later, when Saul's murderous jealousy causes his young rival to flee the court, the two friends suffer a poignant parting at which "they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded" (1 Sam. 20:41).

Jonathan's death alongside his father in battle with the Philistines occasions from David this powerful lament: "The beauty of Israel is slain upon the high places; how are the mighty fallen! . . . I am very distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love was wonderful, passing the love of women" (2 Sam. 1:19-26).

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