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Subjects of the Visual Arts: David and Jonathan  
 
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The biblical narrative of King David, contained in the First and Second Books of Samuel and the opening chapter of the First Book of Kings, invites the reader to visualize the shepherd boy turned warrior and king.

The narrator volunteers that David is "ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to" (1 Sam. 16:12), a remarkable statement in that, apart from Absalom and the Bridegroom of The Song of Solomon, the Bible shows no interest in any other male character's physical beauty.

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Emphasis is laid not on David's size or strength, but on his complexion and coloring, and on the fact that he has beautiful eyes; his power clearly lies in his youth and attractiveness.

What is more, in the only instance in the Bible that records the effect of a man's beauty on its beholders, David is repeatedly the object of other characters' visual scrutiny, the prophet Samuel satisfied that David's comeliness is proof that he is the chosen of Yahweh, while David's adversary on the battlefield, the Philistine giant Goliath, foolishly dismisses David as a pretty boy (1 Sam. 17:42).

It is not surprising, when the biblical narrative insists that David be looked at and admired, that he should emerge in Western art as the incarnation of male physical attractiveness, and that visual representations of his relationships with other men be regularly invested with homoerotic significance.

Michelangelo's David

The premiere representation of David is Michelangelo's fourteen-foot-tall statue, completed in 1504. Sculpted from a piece of perfectly white marble, a physically mature David holds a slingshot in one hand and focuses his thoughts as he prepares to enter the list against Goliath.

While David was presumably intended as a symbol of Florentine republican spirit (allegorically the giant represents Tyranny), its colossal, uncompromising nudity and its perfection of physical form have made it an icon of male sexual attractiveness.

Michelangelo shrewdly uses biblical tradition to sanction the glorification of the naked male body, justifying a reassertion of Greco-Roman aesthetics under the guise of Christian homiletics.

Complaining that handsome men like himself are expected to do all the work in sex, television's Al Bundy offers as his most telling case in point, "You don't ask the statue of David to move a little." Bundy's comment indicates the extent to which Michelangelo's David has been absorbed by popular culture as the icon of male physical perfection, the statue itself capable of supplying erotic satisfaction to the viewer.

In Fully Exposed, Emmanuel Cooper prints John S. Barrington's "Jack Cooper Posing as 'David'" (ca 1950), which presents the photographer's physical ideal in the pose of Michelangelo's statue, and Lea Andrews's eight-foot tall photographic self-portrait as Michelangelo's David (1987), in which the statue's groin is superimposed over the model's in a challenge to culture's idealization of erotic reality. Both use Michelangelo's sculpture to comment upon contemporary social fashioning of masculinity.

Whether transformed into a set of refrigerator magnets that allow the statue's naked figure to be variously dressed as a surfer boy, football player, or leather punk--or appropriated to advertise everything from health insurance to amyl nitrate--Michelangelo's David has become one of Western culture's most visible sexual fetishes.

When film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli commissioned from Tom of Finland a contemporary recension of Michelangelo's David, the artist produced a figure with broader chest, more prominent nipples, and a genital endowment "at least quadruple the size of the one Michelangelo gave him. And . . . instead of wearing a frown of determination, Tom's David slyly peeks at the viewer as if to say, 'I know what you're looking at!'"

Even in the process of parodying Michelangelo's David, Tom of Finland reaffirms the Renaissance statue as an erotic, particularly homoerotic, ideal.

David and Saul

David's name in Hebrew means "beloved," and the ambivalent nature of his relations with Saul, Goliath, and Jonathan in the biblical narrative has invited representation as well of his ability to arouse love or sexual desire in others.

By depicting Saul and David as two men in close contact wearing only jockstraps, for example, Robert Medley (b. 1905) not only comments upon the repressed homoerotic desire that possibly drove the older man alternately to persecute and then call to his side his attractive young rival but also, by transferring their rivalry to the tennis or handball court, suggests the underlying homoeroticism of many contemporary competitive sports.

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zoom in
Top: A fourteenth-century French depiction of David and Jonathan.
Above: David Contemplating the Head of Goliath (ca 1605) by Guido Reni.

  
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