The Triumph of David
Entry 8 April 14, 2013: Over the past two weeks I’ve looked at two paintings with the same title, The Triumph of David. The first one was by Matteo Rosselli (1578-1650), dated 1630; the second was by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622), dated a little earlier, ca. 1615. Although it means once again breaking my rule about how many paintings each post will examine, I’ve decided to devote this week’s entry to some of the things I learned by comparing the two paintings. This post is also not the first one in which I have emphasized comparisons: the last two posts considered the many images of the two St. Catherines in the Louvre collection, and the fifth post, “What Did He Look Like Really?”, pointed out differences and similarities between two images of St. Louis of Toulouse. The Louvre’s vast collection promises many such learning opportunities, which are especially welcome when looking at the works of artists who are not well known or well represented in the museum; Rosselli has only one painting in the Louvre and Manfredi two.
When I first looked at it, Rosselli’s painting interested me primarily because I began to question an assumption I made about it, that is, that everyone would know who the David of the title is. Was I projecting my own experience on my contemporaries? My background is Christian, and my education has included many subjects in which the Bible has been an important reference point for analysis of Western art and literature, so I come across David’s name often. But perhaps not everyone would come to Rosselli with the same contextual background. Praise of art traditionally suggests it has universal appeal; all potential audience members feel included. I wondered whether that would be true here. The use of David’s name suggested to me a possible event that would be celebrated as a triumph, his defeat in battle of the giant Goliath, a story told in Chapter 17 of the First Book of Samuel, but I didn’t see anything in the painting that specifically linked Goliath with the moment depicted there, in which a youthful, exquisitely dressed David is shown surrounded by young women singing and dancing. I wondered whether the audience for the painting should be thought of as divided between those who knew and those who didn’t know the story.
The second Triumph of David, by Manfredi, makes an explicit reference to the cause for celebration. Here young David is shown carrying a man’s head; it is not quite so explanatory a reference to the story as a Louvre viewer would see in The Battle of David and Goliath by Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566), in which the two are shown fighting, but Manfredi places the severed head in a prominent central position, with its face turned squarely toward the viewer.
Looking at the two paintings together caused me to see something more in both of them. First, after noticing Manfredi’s depiction of the head, I returned to Rosselli to confirm that there was no head shown, only to find it was, indeed, there. David is carrying it in his right hand, although the object is to some extent obscured by shadow. Second, after noting in Rosselli’s painting that Goliath’s forehead is clearly marked by a wound—the account in the First Book of Samuel tells of the stone from David’s slingshot being lodged there, I went back to Manfredi’s Goliath, who had struck me as remarkably free of injury, and discovered that I had missed the forehead wound because it was somewhat concealed beneath a lock of Goliath’s hair.
I also noticed from looking at the two paintings together that the crucial moment depicted in both involved David in the company of women; in Rosselli’s, there is a crowd of women, and in Manfredi’s only one woman, but in both the companions are women. The knowledge I brought with me to the painting didn’t extend to accounting for this detail. I might have attributed it to a coincidence or even a tradition within the visual arts, but the Atlas Database entries for both Rosselli’s and Manfredi’s Triumph of David identify the specific moment depicted as occurring in Chapter 18 of the First Book of Samuel. Verses 6 and 7 state, “As they were coming home, when David returned from playing the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with timbrels, with songs of joy, and with instruments of music. And the women sang to one another as they made merry, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.’”
It is a moment of layered, conflicting meaning. David’s triumph is being celebrated, but his friendship with King Saul, for whom he had fought and slain Goliath, is destroyed by the anger sparked in Saul by the comparison the women draw between his successes and David’s. It is a turning point in the troubled history of the kingdom of Israel. My experience with the two paintings suggests to me that we should not expect art to repeat what we already know perfectly well. Rather, we should approach it expecting that it will reveal to us something wholly new.