Silver Plate with David and Goliath
Silver, Diameter 49.4 cm
This beautiful and exceptionally important plate (diameter 49.4 cm) is the largest of a set of nine showing scenes from the life of the Old Testament king David. Six belong to the Metropolitan Museum while three are in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. The group was discovered in 1902 in Karavás (northern Cyprus) sealed with a hoard of jewelry and gold, much of which is also now in the Metropolitan's collection. Originally the smaller plates were arranged around the largest, the one shown here depicting David's combat with Goliath. On the backs of all the plates are the control stamps of the emperor Heraclius, who may have commissioned them to celebrate his victory over the Persians in 628–29, which resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem. During the war, it is said that Heraclius fought the Persian general Razatis in single-handed combat, an event that is perhaps evoked in the depiction of David's defeat of Goliath. Imperial imagery is present also on other plates, where ceremonial scenes from the biblical king's life are set before the arcade of a palace. Their style is a conscious reference to classical art. The plates may have been ordered for display in the banquet hall of a member of the Byzantine aristocracy.
The towers indicate the two towns near which the Israelites and the Philistines are about to clash. David, who has shed Saul’s heavy armor, confronts Goliath. Borrowed from classical antiquity, the seated figure between them personifies a stream, as suggested by the marsh grass he holds and the water that pours from the jug at his side. (It is from this stream that David gathers the stones he uses to fight Goliath.) David appears composed, sure of God’s protection, symbolized by the hand of God pointing to him from the heavens. His shepherd’s staff has been transformed into an imperial scepter with an orb at the top.
1 Samuel 17:42–47
When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and 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. This very 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 Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand .”
David raises his left arm to ward off Goliath’s armed advance while readying his slingshot in his right hand. The Israelite and Philistine soldiers stand behind their leaders.
1 Samuel 17:48–49
When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.
David decapitates Goliath with a large sword. His slingshot and stones visually counterbalance Goliath’s powerful shield and arms.
1 Samuel 17:50–51
So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut o ff his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
In all three scenes, David wears a halo, an attribute of his holiness.