The story of King David is recounted in 1 Samuel 16-31 and 2 Samuel 1-24.
PORTRAITSMany of the Psalms are headed "Psalm of David" and he was taken to be the composer of the entire Psalter. Because of this presumption, King David's attributes are a harp and whatever signifies royalty at the time of the painting. For most of the high middle ages that means a crown, usually pictured as a low and spiky diadem as in the first image at right. The choice of a mere diadem rather than a more elaborate crown is probably due to the Latin of 2 Samuel 1:10, where an Amalekite takes the diadema from the dead Saul and passes it on David as Saul's successor.
Before the medieval period David's kingship is expressed not by a crown but by such signifiers as an imperial arch (example) or his sitting on a throne (as in the second picture at right, which bears a strong resemblance to this 2nd/3rd century image on a probably non-Christian sarcophagus).
As for the harp, it is often pictured as the kind of lyre seen in the second picture at right. Sometimes it can be a "psaltery," a box with strings over a sound hole as in the first picture at right or this Renaissance example.
Instead of a harp, this Romanesque ivory asserts his authorship by placing him on a throne dictating to four scribes, and this 18th-century portrait places a quotation from the Psalms on his shield.
King David is often seen in Orthodox images of the Anastasis (example) and, less often, in western "Harrowing of Hell" images (example).
Many passages from the Psalms have been taken to be David's prophesying events of the New Testament. Thus, for example, he may sometimes figure among the prophets believed to have foretold the Annunciation (example) or the Crucifixion example. In the great mosaic of the Virgin and Prophets along the south wall of the nave at St. Mark's, Venice (14th century), he holds a scroll that reads de fructu ventris tui ponam super sedem tuam (Psalm 131(132):11b), "of the fruit of thy womb I will set upon thy throne." In this context the quotation refers both to David as ancestor of Jesus and to the words in the "Ave Maria" prayer: "blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."
David and GoliathIn 1 Samuel 17 a huge Philistine named Goliath challenges the Israelites to send a champion against him. The young shepherd David meets him at the stream between the two camps, without armor and carrying only a staff, a sling, and a sack with five stones. He slays Goliath with the first shot from his sling and uses the man's sword to cut off his head.
David's victory is commemorated in some of the earliest Christian images. In them he holds a long, baglike sling in his right hand. He wears a cape over the simple tunic of a shepherd, in contrast with the heavily armed Goliath. The silver plate shown below adds a scene at the top where David answers Goliath's taunts by pointing heavenward to God his protector. Another scene at the bottom pictures the decapitation. Another early example is this wall painting in the Catacombs of Domatilla, simpler than the silver plate and somewhat obscured by time, but with the same type of sling, the same simple tunic with a (much simpler) cape, and possibly also the stream and the decapitated head.
The baptistery at Dura-Europos had what may be the earliest known image of David's victory. Although it is now very faint and difficult to make out, it pictures the same type of sling and the same short tunic as the other examples. It was painted about the year 250 just above what appears to have been the platform where initiates were anointed. Peppard (46-85) posits its appropriateness to a Christian initiation rite on the basis of a number of texts in early Syrian Christianity. Some analogize the soldier's task to that of the Christian confronting evil. Others speak of the initiate's anointment as one with the anointments of David and Jesus. His point is well taken, although clearly initiation was not the only context in which this iconography was considered appropriate.
Other Narrative ImagesThrough the years many other episodes in David's life have been illustrated in various genres. A few examples are listed at right.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-21, 2017-04-10, 2018-07-30, 2021-05-27, 2022-01-17.