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The meaning of Michelangelo's "David"

By Lee Sandstead
web posted September 6, 2004

DavidThis September 8 marks the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo's "David," one of art-history's greatest masterpieces. Crowds of visitors have been drawn to Florence to experience this magnificent sculpture over the past 500 years--and they continue to visit in record numbers. Why does a work of art created half a millennium ago possess such a timeless, universal appeal? What meaning does this 500-year-old sculpture hold for modern-day man?

To answer these questions, consider the significance of Michelangelo's "David" to the Renaissance Florentines who first revered it.

During the 1000 years preceding the Renaissance, the West had been mired in the medieval Christian worldview, which divided the universe into two spheres: a heavenly realm of perfection, happiness and truth, and this dark world of imperfection, misery and falsehood. Man, forever paying for his crime of Original Sin, was regarded as powerless and ignorant, with blind obedience to God and his earthly spokesmen as his only recourse.

As expressed by one of the leading Christians of the time, Saint Augustine, man is "crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous." Consequently, man as depicted in medieval art is a deformed beast, wailing for the salvation of his soul. At best, the human ideal was represented as a bloody, beaten and crucified Jesus Christ; a man who resigned himself to his preordained fate: a violent, sacrificial death.

The Renaissance was the rebirth of man's life on earth. Freed from the shackles of authority, man's mind was viewed as able to understand the universe. Far from being a tortured soul trapped in a deformed bodily prison, man was regarded as rational, beautiful and heroic--worthy of happiness and capable of great achievement. Man, in the Renaissance view, need not bow down in passive resignation, praying for salvation. He can choose to undertake great challenges in the face of seemingly impossible odds; he can actively pursue success, fight for victory--even slay a giant.

Michelangelo's "David" is the best expression of this Renaissance sense of life. The sculpture was inspired by the story of the young shepherd boy who chose to fight a far stronger adversary in order to save his people from invasion. Wearing no armor, with a sling as his only weapon, David defeats Goliath using superior skill and courage.

Although there had been many earlier portrayals of David in art, Michelangelo's was revolutionary. The others depict David after the battle had been won--often standing on the severed head of a defeated Goliath. Michelangelo chose to show David not in victory, but at that point in time that prefigured victory: in that instance between conscious choice and conscious action, that moment when an individual makes a choice--and commits to act on that choice. David stands, with furrowed brow, looking over his left shoulder into the distance for Goliath. Michelangelo shows David not as a triumphant victor, but as a thinking, resolute being--the preconditions for victory.

The key to the "David"'s appeal is Michelangelo's magnificent projection of man at his best--vigorously healthy, beautiful, rational, competent. It expresses a heroic view of man and of a universe auspicious to his success. Such a projection is of immeasurable worth to anyone who holds such a sense of life--whether that person lived 500 years ago or lives today.

Unfortunately, this kind of artistic projection has almost entirely been relegated to the past.

Today intellectuals once again view man as an ugly, corrupt being, trapped in an incomprehensible universe and not in control of his own destiny. Consequently, man and his values are not considered a serious subject for art by Modernists; "serious art" contains the defecations of an elephant or the rusty steel of a garbage dump.

Michelangelo's "David" thoroughly rejects both the Christian and Modernist conceptions of man. The David projects man as neither a monster nor a hapless victim, but as an efficacious and noble being. The "David" is the ultimate projection of heroic choice and heroic action.

What is the meaning of Michelangelo's "David" for modern-day man? The same as it was 500 years ago--the brilliant projection of the ideal.

Lee Sandstead, an art historian, is a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Copyright © 2004 Ayn Rand® Institute, 2121 Alton Parkway, Suite 250, Irvine, CA, 92606. All rights reserved.

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