Using his reflective shield (courtesy of Athena), flying sandals (via Hermes), and a host of other magical props, Perseus successfully killed Medusa. But in a sense, the toughest part of battling Medusa was transporting the head, whose gaze turned people into stone sculptures. Perseus' solution was to bagg the head, which protected him from becoming petrified. Another famous warrior, David, had a more practical concern when he beheaded Goliath -- how to transport his prize.
The Goliath story, which has come to symbolize the ultimate triumph of the underdog, is just one instance of the notion of trophies in Jewish and Christian scriptures which isn't exactly appropriate by contemporary taste. Salome dances with John's disembodied head, which is literally displayed on a silver platter; and Judith decapitates Holofernes and transports his head. Since Goliath was a giant, the comparatively diminutive David -- God's "sweet singer" -- had to somehow lift and transport a very heavy prize.
Artists have frequently portrayed David and Goliath, and many of the greatest painters and sculptors have depicted the scene, including: Donatello, Rembrandt, Michelangelo (in the Sistine Chapel), and Lorenzo Ghiberti (in the Doors of Paradise).
Some artists have thought inventively about how the future Jewish king carried his spoils of war. Some works, such as Caravaggio's "David with the Head of Goliath" (1609-1610) show David lifting Goliath's head up by the hair, while others, such as "Speculum humanae salvationis" (c. 1460-70) and the So-called "Hours of Engelbert of Nassau" (c. 1470-90), depict the son of Jesse transporting Goliath impaled on the end of his own sword -- a sort of human shish kabob.
In light of these two artistic conventions, Sebastiano Ricci's "David with the Head of Goliath" (see image) -- currently on view at Mortetti Fine Art in New York -- is particularly enigmatic.
According to the Moretti catalog, the "unassuming yet fundamental sling" which David used to slay Goliath "is still held in his left hand, which is delicately placed to cover the gruesome, still bleeding trophy, fromw hich he casts aside his gaze." (The catalog correctly notes that David took five stones with him, per 1 Samuel 17:40, but it invents a narrative about the other four stones, while the bible only implies David fired once.)
Indeed, there is some sort of string or rope in David's hand, which has a loop a the end and is draped over Goliath's head (see detail).
But although the sling is a frequent prop in many other depictions of the scene, the weapon tends to look quite different. The most minimalist slings still are a good deal thicker (perhaps to accommodate stones that are thicker than pebbles) than the one in Ricci's painting, while others, such as the one in Guido Reni's "David with the Head of Goliath" (c. 1603-04) contain a flap that seems to be more convenient for securing the rock-projectiles.
Perhaps, then, what Ricci had in mind rather than the slingshot was a more mundane and practical, although less dramatic element -- a slip knot in a string used to transport the head. That thesis, although speculative, may be supported by the appearance of other loops in the string: one on either side of David's left hand. That detail, if correctly interpreted, might suggest that Ricci was responding in a new way to the practical problem of how David carried the head.
Here are a few more reflections:
- It's interesting to note that many artists responded literally to the biblical detailing of Goliath's weapons -- both a sword and a spear. A 13th century Psalter in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, for example, featues both of those weapons.
- Some artists, such as Giovanni Domenico Cerrini in his "David with the Head of Goliath" (1649), depict Goliath's head as much larger than David's, which surely reflects a literal reading of the text. Others choose to stick more closely to natural scale.
- Several painters, such as the Dutch artist Aert de Gelder, portray a strange scene: "Ahimelech Giving the Sword of Goliath to David." (De Gelder's is c. 1680s.) It's interesting to speculate why this rare scene appealed to certain artists.
- In Ricci's painting, David holds his hand over the forehead of Goliath (where the stone hit), perhaps to hide the gore (although blood begins to trickle down his nose). Alternatively, this may add to what the Moretti catalog describes as the "eroticism" of the work. David may be fingering Goliath's wound as saints would later identify with Jesus through the Stigmata.
This post orgionally appeared on the Houston Chronicle website.