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Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and the Gift of Limitations

By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“At the crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.” – Iris Murdoch

We live in a world of limits. We all run up against them. We all have them. If you’re like me, you wish this weren’t the case. But limits are a fact of life, part of God’s design. Even our first parent, Adam, looked around and said, “I need help. I need another.”

Eve didn’t solve the problem of Adam’s limitations. God didn’t put the man to sleep and then put into him what he lacked. Instead, God took something out of the man and made a partner to come alongside him—helpful but distinct. The gift of Eve confirmed that this was how things were going to be moving forward—how they were meant to be. We wouldn’t merely help ourselves. We’d be given help—and we would be given to help.

Sometimes the help we’re given requires us to adapt to a new course, especially when a person has a personality that changes the rhythm of how we might work on our own. Perhaps they’re faster than us, or more contemplative. Perhaps they think in concrete terms while we favor the abstract. They bring nuance into our otherwise rigid plans, structure to our hazy vision, or economics to our dream. Sometimes, we inherit the work of others, and it falls to us to carry it across the finish line. Sometimes others inherit our work.

Whatever the situation, our limits and need for others often end up producing results—beautiful, helpful, and unexpected results that none of us would’ve expected on our own. The story behind how Michelangelo’s David came to be helps us see this point.

Michelangelo Wasn’t First

Michelangelo’s David is confounding. He’s simultaneously vulnerable in his nakedness and imposing in his size, standing more than 13 feet tall. One hand grips a sling, ready for action; the other is relaxed, cradling a stone. The warrior is alert but calm, equipped but patient, daring but confident. His posture conveys motion, as though he’s just shifted his weight or taken a step. The sling and stone signal to us that David is looking at Goliath, who is about to die. The look in David’s eye tells us he has no doubt.

The shepherd’s hands, his torso, his battle-ready stare, his posture all seem to animate Michelangelo’s block of marble. David is a living stone. He’s a masterpiece.

Yet Michelangelo wasn’t the first sculptor to take hammer and chisel to this marble. Nor was he the second. In 1464, the city of Florence commissioned Agostino de Duccio to sculpt a statue of David as part of a series of 12 Old Testament figures begun in 1410 by Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi—better known as Donatello. After the city brought in a block of marble masoned from the Alps in northern Tuscany, Duccio began his work. But he only got as far as roughing out the legs before he died in 1466.

Ten years later, another sculptor named Antonio Rossellino was brought in to pick up where Duccio left off, but for reasons unknown he was soon removed from the project, and the work-in-progress sat unfinished for the next 25 years.

Finally, in 1501, a 26-year-old Michelangelo convinced city officials that he should be hired to finish the sculpture Duccio started 11 years before Michelangelo was born. He had to accommodate the work of others whose creative choices determined, at least to a degree, how David stood, which affected everything about the end result.

How different would Michelangelo’s David have been if he began with a virgin stone? What artistic choices would he have made differently? Would that sculpture be as beloved as the one we’ve been given? We’ll never know, because Michelangelo was given a block of stone others had a hand in shaping.

No Untouched Foundations

Isn’t this a metaphor for life? None of us builds on an untouched foundation. Many people and their many decisions—for better or worse—have played a role in determining where our feet are planted. Consequently, we ourselves are in the process of shaping future foundations on which others will one day stand. Lord, have mercy.

We work with what we’re given. We live in a world of limits. Michelangelo chipped away at the stone set before him, improving on the vision of other sculptors. But even before that, he had to accommodate the dimensions handed down by the stonemasons who first hewed the marble from the Tuscan Alps. Further still, he had to accommodate the written word of Scripture.

These limits played a role in the creative decisions Michelangelo had to make in order to sculpt the shepherd he’d read about and imagined. Some of those choices had already been made for him—and had they not been, we wouldn’t have Michelangelo’s David. We’d have something else.

I can’t think of a single thing in my life that doesn’t bear the touch of others. I bet you can’t either. Of course we wish some of those chisel marks never happened—the ones that draw from us pleas for mercy and for the renewal of all things. But if we’re honest, many of the marks have been necessary to give us eyes to behold God’s glory, glory we wouldn’t have otherwise known.

Recognizing both our limits and also our need for others is one of the ways we experience beauty we wouldn’t have seen, good work we wouldn’t have chosen, and relationships we wouldn’t have treasured. It’s one of the ways we’re shaped to fit together as living stones into the body of Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5; Eph. 2:22). As much as our strengths are a gift to the church, so are our limitations.

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