My heart starts pulsing harder as I enter the room. I know he’s down the hall. I try not to look, but I can’t help it. He looks really good; he always does. There are so many people, but their presence is hardly noticeable to me. I’m here only for one thing…him.
I try to sneak a picture of him. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t help myself. Trying not to let anyone notice me, I stand by a pillar and hide my camera-phone behind a piece of paper. No one is the wiser, and I have my shot–I’m so sly. The man next to me, however, is not. He gets reprimanded by a hefty, short-legged, Italian security woman, who wags her plump finger and says, ” NOH PHOTOH!”
Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece beckons many of us to break the rules. The dare is in his piercing eyes, in the way he grips a deadly stone in his right palm, in the casually confident way his sling slinks down his back, and in the visible balance of ease and tension in his sinewy stance.
But David is more than a 16th-century triumph of impeccable design and sculpture; he’s a triumph of the spirit–a Humanistic spirit that then, as now, reminds mankind that with God’s help, we are capable of anything.
At the age of 26 Michelangelo was commissioned to create a sculpture that was to be put atop the east roofline of the duomo (Basilica de Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence. He labored from 1501-1504 to depict a biblical David that was different than any people had previously seen. His predecessors and contemporaries had all portrayed David after he had slain the giant. Michelangelo chose to illustrate the moment before the fight–when David sizes up his enemy and makes the conscious choice to rise to the challenge and act against his foe. The people of Florence embraced this work as a symbol of their own autonomy and cherished civil liberties. Little Florence, by divine grace and human skill, could take on its larger city-state enemies and even the powerful Medici Family.
Now in his new home under the rotunda of the Accademia since 1873, this larger-than-life David receives 3 million visitors annually. Likely, a large number of those people come here merely because they “have to” or they think they “should”. But I’m sure that most leave with an experience greater than one of obligation. They connect with the sculpture because they recognize their own humanity through it.
Despite being in a crowded room with this specimen of art, you feel like you get one-on-one time with him. He’s perfectly elevated so no one blocks your view, and he’s divinely exposed with the sun-bathing light that filters through the glass dome of the rotunda. Go ahead, walk around him. Admire the way he is properly balanced in contrapposto, or counterweight position. Ladies, you’ll surely notice before your man does that David’s right hand is rather large. And surely, you’ll think: My, oh my! What a magnificent visual symbol for the power and grace of God working through this mere mortal of a man! The artist’s diligent study of human anatomy and cadavers is evident in how he makes David’s muscles seem to contract or slacken. Try standing like him: feel how your right quad is taut, how your neck muscles stretch, how your shoulders are angled versus your hips, how the space near your knee dimples when you bend your left leg, and observe how David’s supple and firm body does the same.
Switch your focus to David’s gaze and facial expression. They change as you circle around him. Look at the Billy Idol lip curl and the furrow of his brow. In one instance, he stands with determination. In the next, you can sense he has some doubts. Is he agitated or is he resilient? From one angle, he even seems to look toward his foe with pity and compassion. Now he looks as though he trying to muster up some confidence, and then suddenly, he realizes that victory is within his grasp. All those emotions pass through David’s mind in that nanosecond before battle, captured in a single 6-ton piece of Carrara marble, and set free by Michelangelo.
They say Michelangelo believed that with all his works in marble, he wasn’t creating a sculpture but merely releasing the image that was already contained within the stone. He saw the true beauty within. As an artist, he embodied his belief that we are each blessed in unique ways by God and that the best way to honor Him is to use those gifts to discover in ourselves where divinity and humanity come together.
After I finished my second David loop, I sat next to my friend Robin, whose gentle smile and soft gaze told me that she, too, was lost in thoughts of admiration for David. She looked at me and asked me, “So, what do you think?”
As we discussed the merits of this work, we also pondered the weaknesses and merits of Man: from discrimination to charity, from war to peace, from religious values to civil liberties, and from poverty to love. While we may have our many faults, I think we always strive collectively to be better than we were, to become the best version of ourselves. In sharing our similar sentiments, Robin and I made our own human connection, recognizing the potential in each other, and shedding a tear in awe of one another’s inner beauty.
This is what art does: it elevates our senses, our mind, and our spirit. It’s not simply the beauty, anguish, compassion, or joy that the work portrays, rather, it’s that we recognize those same qualities within ourselves. Art works when it becomes a relationship between the artist, the piece, and the viewer. Art challenges us to reflect on our own nature. Michelangelo’s David is so much more than an example of one man’s skills as an artist–it is a tribute to Man as he is and Man as he could be. It’s a reminder that goodness and virtue lie within all of us, and that when we embrace and nurture that, we can all reach our greatest potential.