1 Samuel 17

David and Goliath

Commentaries by Andrea Olsen Lam

Works of art by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Pesellino (Francesco di Stefano) and Unknown artist, Constantinople

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Unknown artist, Constantinople

Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath, 629–30, Silver, 49.4 x 6.6 cm; 5780g, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.396, www.metmuseum.org

Head on a Plate

Commentary by Andrea Olsen Lam

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This early seventh-century silver plate is the largest (approx. 50 cm in diameter) in a set of nine plates that depicts events from the life of David, including his slaying of a lion, his anointing by Samuel, and his wedding to Michal (1 Samuel 16–18). Based on the control stamps on its reverse, the plate was crafted around the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610–41 CE).

The upper zone depicts the verbal exchange between David and Goliath, with a personification of the river from which David gathered five stones. The central zone depicts David and Goliath in close combat. The billowing fabric on David’s arm indicates swift movement in the classical tradition. Goliath wears ornate Persian armour and headgear. David’s dynamic stance contrasts with his frontal gaze and peaceful expression, which are juxtaposed against Goliath’s forward motion with raised spear and stern, profile gaze.

The lower zone portrays David decapitating the giant’s head at the moment Goliath is falling to the ground. In all three scenes David wears a halo, denoting his saintly, heroic status. All figures are depicted in the classical tradition, with attention to proportion, the bodies’ musculature, the garments’ movements and realistic details.

Since the 1970s, scholars have presumed that this plate symbolically represents the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as a new David, subsequent to his victorious conquests against the Persians (Wander 1973: 89–104; Trilling 1978: 249–63). A more recent interpretation argued that the silver plate does not relate at all to the Byzantine emperor, but instead represents David as a classical hero in a manner that reflects late antiquity’s Christianization of the domestic sphere (Leader 2000: 407–27). Upon close inspection, fresh interpretations are possible—as I show elsewhere in this exhibition.



Leader, Ruth E. 2000. ‘The David Plates Revisited: Transforming the Secular in Early Byzantium’, Art Bulletin 82.3: 407–27

Trilling, James. 1978. ‘Myth and Metaphor at the Byzantine Court: A Literary Approach to the David Plates’, Byzantion 48.1: 249–63

Wander, Steven H. 1973. ‘The Cyprus Plates: The Story of David and Goliath’, Metropolitan Museum Journal 8: 89–104

Pesellino (Francesco di Stefano)

The Story of David and Goliath, c.1445–55, Tempera on panel, 45.5 x 179.2 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with the assistance of the Art Fund and a number of gifts in wills, 2000, NG6579, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

All’s Fair in Love and War

Commentary by Andrea Olsen Lam

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This is the first in a set of two ornately-painted panels (each measuring 45.5 x 179.2 cm) that offer a beautiful—and beautified—rendition of the narrative of 1 Samuel 17.

Unlike some more famous Renaissance depictions of David as hero, Francesco Pesellino’s (1422–57) panels depicting David’s life do not portray David as an emblem of the Florentine Republic, but depict the popular narrative for a domestic context. Pesellino portrays a sequence of vignettes spanning David’s work as a shepherd, Goliath’s taunts, and David’s victory, set within a flower-laden battlefield, replete with armoured Renaissance warriors on horseback. This panel is followed by a second panel (both completed c.1445–55) depicting a triumphal procession culminating with a wedding party outside the city walls (1 Samuel 18).

In the central foreground, David decapitates the fallen Philistine giant amid horses and warriors. The heavily-armed knights on horseback who surround David make him look as misplaced as the biblical text paints him to be: he is a mild-looking shepherd boy, not a warrior prepared for battle. Indeed, David fights without a horse or spear. But he is equipped with courage and divine protection.

Given the presence of Medici emblems in the painting and the Medici family’s self-identification with the biblical David, some scholars have proposed that Pesellino’s panels may have been commissioned for a Medici wedding and would originally have decorated a private chamber in a home. In such a context the new husband might be likened to David, a victorious youth who married a royal bride. The panel might even express the groom’s aspirations for future political authority. However, recalling that David later became an adulterer and murderer (2 Samuel 11), the portrayal of David on wedding furniture seems an odd choice. I explore other possible interpretations in this exhibition’s comparative commentary.




Gian Lorenzo Bernini

David, 1623–24, Marble, 170 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome; LXXVII, Scala / Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY

Never Alone

Commentary by Andrea Olsen Lam

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Like several Renaissance sculptors before him—including Donatello, Verrocchio, and Michelangelo—Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) distils the David and Goliath narrative into a single figure (completed between 1623–24), supplying his slingshot and Saul’s armour at his feet as identifying attributes. Unlike earlier sculptures, which portray David calmly staring down his enemy or standing triumphantly after the battle, Bernini’s David is actively taking aim at Goliath (Hibberd 1965: 55). By removing the trappings of context—and even Goliath himself—we come face-to-face with an exemplum of faith in action.

Bernini’s white marble masterpiece resembles an ideal male athlete with the addition of a cloth that drapes around his waist at an angle, adding both modesty (deemed appropriate after the Council of Trent in 1545–63) and highlighting the dynamic, chiastic arrangement of David’s limbs. The seventeenth-century commentators Baldinucci and Bellori identified the dominant emotion in his eyes as ‘righteous anger’ (sdegno) against the enemy who defied God’s armies (1 Samuel 17:26; see Riegl 1912: 112–13; Glen 1996, esp. n.1), while others suggest that David’s expression reveals his determination and faith in God, as reflected in his statement to Saul:

The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine. (1 Samuel 17:37; see Glen 1996: 89–91)

David’s intense expression and convincing pose bring us so psychologically and physically near the battle that we half-expect to glimpse Goliath over our shoulder. Scholars have alternately suggested that the viewer stands between David and Goliath, behind David, or even that the viewer is a potential target. However, it should be borne in mind that the hunched David measures 190 cm tall, and so towers over most beholders.

Whatever Bernini’s intended relationship between sculpture and viewer, this masterpiece makes clear that David is not alone, either physically or spiritually.



Glen, Thomas L. 1996. ‘Rethinking Bernini’s David: Attitude, Moment and the Location of Goliath’, RACAR 23.1/2: 84–92

Hibbard, Howard. 1965. Bernini (Baltimore: Penguin Books)

Riegl, Alois. 1912. Filippo Baldinucci’s Vita des? Geo. Lorenzo Baldinucci mit Ubersetzung und Kommentar (Vienna), trans. and reproduced by E.G. Holt, A Documentary History of Art, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958)

Unknown artist, Constantinople :

Plate with the Battle of David and Goliath, 629–30 , Silver

Pesellino (Francesco di Stefano) :

The Story of David and Goliath, c.1445–55 , Tempera on panel

Gian Lorenzo Bernini :

David, 1623–24 , Marble

Faith Conquers All

Comparative commentary by Andrea Olsen Lam

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David’s heroic fight against Goliath has endured as a favourite narrative for millennia, becoming a trope for any underdog battling a powerful foe (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants). The varied depictions of David’s victory over Goliath in this exhibition demonstrate the power of perspective not simply when interpreting art, but also when reading Scripture and when facing ‘Goliaths’ in our daily lives. This brief commentary explores how David and Goliath are portrayed rather distinctively in each artwork, resulting in quite disparate responses to Scripture.

The most remarkable aspect of the Byzantine plate is that David and Goliath are depicted as equally-sized opponents, not according to 1 Samuel 17:4’s account of Goliath’s height as ‘six cubits and a span’ (three meters tall). The contemporary viewer might see David as at a tremendous disadvantage, since he is without armour and holds only a slingshot, but David is depicted as a Roman slinger, a type of unarmed or lightly-armed soldier known to disrupt enemy ranks at strategic moments by firing their ballistic stones at high speeds (Peppard 2016: 72–74, fig. 2.9). Slingers had been decisive in the Romans’ defeat of the Persians in the third century. This plate may celebrate (or anticipate) their effectiveness in seventh-century conflicts against the Persians, since Goliath and several of the surrounding troops wear Persian-style armour.

This Byzantine portrayal of David as physically equal to his opponent renders him both militarily and spiritually strong, not as weak or inferior in any respect. David’s lack of armour and calm demeanour can be viewed as a means of emphasizing his incredible faith in God’s protection. His halo further distinguishes the future king as a biblical saint and hero.

By comparison, Francesco Pesellino portrays David as a lithe youth, smaller than the men around him, and approximately half the height of Goliath. The flower-laden landscape forms a tapestry-like background for this romantic re-telling of the story. As an alternative to scholars’ interpretation of the panels as celebrating a Medici wedding, Pesellino’s panels may not depict David as an upstanding political leader (after all, he was anointed in secret; 1 Sam 16:1–13, and later usurped Saul’s throne). On this panel (and its mate, not pictured here) David may instead be interpreted as a prefiguration of Christ, whose virtue and love for the church is a husband’s chief model of love for his bride (Ephesians 5:25–32). In fact, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccacio are among the quattrocento authors who referred to David’s victory over Goliath as proleptic of Christ’s triumph, but also as a biblical characterization of humility overcoming pride (Baskins 1993: 116). Pesellino’s David is non-threatening and his low-conflict victory is a theologically-significant message for a domestic context in which humility prevails.

For Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David, specific historical context is all but absent. David appears deeply engaged in felling his opponent, seemingly occupying the same space as the artwork’s beholders. One of several striking features of the statue is the fact that Bernini applied his own facial features to his David, according to both Baldinucci and later Domenico Bernini, the sculptor’s son, who reported that Cardinal Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII) himself often held a mirror for Bernini while he worked (Bernini 1713: ch. III, 18–19). The minimal presence of narrative details brings into focus David’s spiritual battle, as Bernini and other commentators, including Ambrose (340–397 CE) conceived it: the fight of virtue against evil (Glen 1996: 90–91). Bernini portrays David as an athlete, but also incorporates his identity as the author of the Psalms through the lyre at his feet. Indeed, Bernini’s David was compared to the sculptor Myron’s (c.450 BCE) ancient diskoboulos (‘discus-thrower’) (Preimesberger 1985: 11–12). We may further identify David as a spiritual athlete who competes not for an Olympian laurel, but for heavenly victory, in keeping with Ambrose’s description of David’s Psalms as ‘a kind of gymnasium open for all souls to use … In that gymnasium, in that stadium of virtue, he can choose the exercises that will train him best to win the victor’s crown’ (Explanatio psalmorum VII, Ps. 1)

Whether dressed as saintly Roman slinger, gentle Florentine youth, or determined spiritual athlete, the Lord defended David and gave him victory. Perhaps we, too, may glance into Bernini’s mirror and see ourselves as courageous Davids, full of faith in action.



Baskins, Christelle L. 1993. ‘Donatello’s Bronze “David”: Grillanda, Goliath, Groom?’, Studies in Iconography 15: 113–34

Bernini, Domenico. [1713] 1988. Vita del Cavalier Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (Rome)

Glen, Thomas L. 1996. ‘Rethinking Bernini’s David: Attitude, Moment and the Location of Goliath’, RACAR 23.1/2: 84–92

Peppard, Michael. 2016. The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Preimesberger, R. 1985. ‘Themes from Art Theory in the Early Works of Bernini’, in Gianlorenzo Bernini: New Aspects of His Art and Thought, ed. by I. Lavin (Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania State University Press)

Riain, Íde Ní (Trans.). 2000. Ambrose Commentary on Twelve Psalms (Dublin Halcyon Press)


Next exhibition: 1 Samuel 28:3–25

1 Samuel 17

Revised Standard Version

17 Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle; and they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azeʹkah, in Eʹphes-damʹmim. 2And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. 3And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6And he had greaves of bronze upon his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. 8He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.” 11When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

12 Now David was the son of an Ephʹrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years. 13The three eldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle; and the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliʹab the first-born, and next to him Abinʹadab, and the third Shammah. 14David was the youngest; the three eldest followed Saul, 15but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.

17 And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers; 18also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See how your brothers fare, and bring some token from them.”

19 Now Saul, and they, and all the men of Israel, were in the valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. 20And David rose early in the morning, and left the sheep with a keeper, and took the provisions, and went, as Jesse had commanded him; and he came to the encampment as the host was going forth to the battle line, shouting the war cry. 21And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. 22And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage, and ran to the ranks, and went and greeted his brothers. 23As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.

24 All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were much afraid. 25And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel; and the man who kills him, the king will enrich with great riches, and will give him his daughter, and make his father’s house free in Israel.” 26And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27And the people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”

28 Now Eliʹab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men; and Eliʹab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption, and the evil of your heart; for you have come down to see the battle.” 29And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” 30And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way; and the people answered him again as before.

31 When the words which David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 32And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” 34But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after him and smote him and delivered it out of his mouth; and if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him and killed him. 36Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” 38Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.” And David put them off. 40Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

41 And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance. 43And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.”

48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine, and killed him; there was no sword in the hand of David. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. 52And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Sha-araʹim as far as Gath and Ekron. 53And the Israelites came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. 54And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armor in his tent.

55 When Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?” And Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I cannot tell.” 56And the king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” 57And as David returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 58And Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”