The Arming of David

Silver plate
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is one of six plates picturing David's victory over Goliath and the events surrounding it. In this plate King Saul, on the boy's left, prepares for battle by giving him his own helmet and armor. David's youth is expressed by his small size relative to the other figures. On his right, the prophet Samuel blesses him with his right hand formed in the traditional Christian blessing gesture. Like David but unlike the others, he is pictured with a halo.

In the succeeding moment, David will find the armor too constricting and will choose to go against Goliath with just a sling and five pebbles in a pouch.

In Byzantine art the "arctuated lintel" that we see above the central figures is a traditional way of suggesting the emperor's palace and thus the emperor himself.1 Here it works symbolically in two directions: pointing forward to the 6th century it uses imperial iconography to express David's kingship; pointing backward, it legitimizes the emperor's rule as a successor to David's.

In the lower register the snake on the left is likely to be more than decorative because it is repeated in exactly the same position on the plate depicting the slaying of Goliath. 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," a remark that, surprisingly, the exegetes attribute to Christ.2

Read more about images of King David.
View the entire series of six plates.

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 "Plate with the Arming of David," Online, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved 2023-05-09.

2 See the Glossa Ordinaria, I, 574. The psalm as a whole is interpreted as the words of Christ in the Passion. A "worm" was believed to be generated without sexual intercourse. "Not a man" then means he is God and not a human conceived through intercourse.