David and Goliath

Constantinople, 628-630
Silver plate, 1½ in. (3.8 cm.), 19½ in. diameter (49.4 cm.)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 17.190.396

The central image on the plate depicts the famous battle between David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. As described in verses 5-7, Goliath carries a spear and is arrayed in armor, whereas David carries only his sling and has insisted on wearing only his ordinary shepherd's clothing.

In verses 32-37 David pleads with King Saul for a chance to take on Goliath, boasting that he has killed a lion and a bear while guarding his sheep. This appears to be what is happening in the upper register of the plate. The figure on the left is probably David, with the same curly hair and simple garments as in the main scene. His raised hand signifies speech to the enthroned king before him. The armed soldier on the right would then be the person in verse 31 who has reported to the king what David was saying about Goliath.

The lower register depicts the beheading of Goliath in verse 51. The snake on the left is likely to be more than decorative because it is repeated in exactly the same position on a companion plate depicting David's anointing. The snake may be a reference to an epithet of David in the Vulgate 2 Samuel 23:8, sedens in cathedra sapientisssimus princeps inter tres, ipse est quasi tenerrimus ligni vermiculus, "seated on the throne among three [soldiers], he is as the most tender woodworm." The Mirror of Salvation uses this passage to compare David to Christ, mild and gentle but severe with his enemies. Also relevant to David's status as a type of Christ are what are taken to be his words in Vulgate Psalm 21:7, ego autem sum vermis, et non homo, opprobrium hominum, et abiectio plebis, "I am a worm and not a man, the reproach of men and rejected by the people."

Read more about King David.

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City