Comparisons: Michelangelo's David Vs. Dante's Divine Comedy
This analysis focuses on two iconic works. Both were sensational in their time, and remain easily recognizable today. Dante's Divine Comedy is the pinnacle literary work of the early 14th century. Laid out in minute detail is the path of a human soul as it leaves the body to journey into the afterlife. The correct pathways to life are revealed in all three sections of the Divine Comedy, and are evident in the living world of the past as well as the present. (Raffa). Michelangelo’s statue of David remains among the most visited sculptures in Italy, and draws millions from around the world to marvel at its immense size, realistically life-like posture, and incredible detail. Dante's epic poem answers the curiosity about the afterlife and provides examples of how simple choices can have real, often eternal, consequences. As David prepared for his battle against the giant, he understood the implications of his actions and their potential consequences all too well. In recognizing the historical and modern significance of each work, we see how they transcend cultures and time periods and withstand, with grace, monumental changes to the world around them.
The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is both literal and metaphorical. Literally, it details an afterlife with logically expected punishments and/or rewards for earthly actions. All are laid out in specific, often horrific detail, but the message is consistent. Dante clearly states that a person can anticipate their afterlife based on their earthly one. Metaphorically, this makes life on earth all the more significant, due to its eternal value. In Canto III.7, Dante describes the inscription over the gates of hell, stating that the purpose for hell is divine justice, explaining that a soul's eternal punishment will fit its earthly crimes. Dante feels sympathy for the damned, and struggles with whether or not this is true justice. He inwardly wrestles with the sentences meted out to the guilty, and does not easily reconcile empathy and
justice, questioning God's ultimate punishment of these souls. (Sparknote Editors) When the Divine Comedy was introduced, human behavior centered on the afterlife. Existence was brief and brutal, and the concept of a time/place where true justice would be administered gave people hope not to be found in their current world. Knowledge of a brutal human history aids in our understanding of the hope Dante provided to a confused populace.
Have you seen the David Statue?
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The Statue of David by Michelangelo
Michelangelo's statue of David is unique in that it portrays David before the famous biblical battle with the giant Goliath. Other sculptures at the time depicted David after his victory. Michelangelo's David, however, is introspective. His slingshot, as yet unused, is slung casually over his shoulder, and his entire body is tensed in anticipation of the battle. Michelangelo's sculpture represents David's humanity, not the invincibility of the giant slayer. The sculpture starkly illuminates the beauty of the human body and the human spirit. David is pictured nude, and looks pensive and powerful, and there is little doubt that this sculpture makes a statement. David shows defiance in the face of larger, intimidating enemies, and provides hope to the underdog. Medieval history often contrasted the perfection of heaven and the spiritual, while depicting humanity as weak and ultimately powerless. As the Renaissance emerged, it demonstrated the power of the human spirit apart from the divine, as argued by Lee Sandstead . Instead of viewing humanity as a whole as ignorant and worthless, Michelangelo presented a true hero of mankind, and presented people as worthy and capable of victory over seemingly insurmountable odds. (Sandstead)
The differences between the Divine Comedy and the Statue of David are remarkable in the context and period that created them. While Dante's epic work focuses on the afterlife and covers the suffering of souls trapped in hell, the trials of those in purgatory, and the bliss of those fortunate enough to have made it to heaven, his work is about the future. It encompasses the full spectrum of what humanity fears, expects or desires with their eternal afterlife based on how they live on earth. David, on the other hand, is a remarkable portrait of humanity and earthly life. From the tense anticipation perceived in the pose that Michelangelo chose to the seemingly casual facial demeanor, Michelangelo brings to life in stunning detail the beauty of the human form – and the spirit within. By encapsulating David prior to the formative battle that turned him from a shepherd to a hero king, Michelangelo gives humanity hope in the face of adversity. (Sandstead)
Although the Divine Comedy and Michelangelo's David are from different media and encompass different ideals and mindsets, they also share striking similarities. Both of them unite the universal human themes of suffering and overcoming adversity. While Dante's struggle is more metaphorical in his battle to reconcile himself to God's divine judgment in Inferno “through me you enter into the city of woes through me you enter into eternal pain, through me you enter the population of loss.. . .abandon all hope, you who enter here. “ (Canto III.1-7), David's struggle is read on every standing vein on his body as he prepares mentally and physically to battle the giant Goliath. Struggle is a part of life, and the idea of triumph over adversity and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds has been captured in human thought from its earliest civilizations. Both the Divine Comedy and the David statue are also largely visual works. Although the Comedy is a literary masterpiece and the statue of David is a sculpture, they both create a striking image in the minds of those who see them.
Art from different media appears to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. Deeper introspection often yields surprising and illuminating results. Connections, therefore, can easily be drawn despite obvious differences. As a result, we recognize shared stamp of human nature: triumph over adversity and the inherent desire for growth and understanding. Like these pieces of art, these desires truly withstand time. Perhaps Dante's admonition to “Abandon all Hope” (III.1-7) is not a foregone conclusion after all, as shown beautifully by Michelangelo's David. These artists' great work have proven as they have transcended time, culture and political intrigue to reach our modern age as a means to warn and teach and provide a necessary hope to the rest of the world at large.
Alighiere, Dante. The Divine Comedy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948. Print.
Raffa, Guy P. "Danteworlds." Danteworlds. University of Texas, n.d. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/>.
Sandstead, Lee. "The Meaning of Michelangelo's David." sandstead.com. Sandstead.com, 05 Sep 2004. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <http://www.sandstead.com/essays/david.html>.
SparkNotes Editors, , ed. "SparkNote on Inferno." SparkNote. Sparknote, n.d. Web. 21 Nov 2013. <http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/inferno/themes.html>.