Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath – a victor filled with sorrow

David with the Head of Goliath, fragment, alleged portrait of Caravaggio himself, Galleria Borghese

David with the Head of Goliath, fragment, alleged portrait of Caravaggio himself, Galleria Borghese

After years of wandering, the eternal fugitive Caravaggio, once again on the run, this time from the Knights of Malta, completes a painting for Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, in hope that he will vouch for him and get the pope to pardon him. He knows that the patron of art is fascinated by the figure of the young and beautiful David (see: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David). On his way to Rome the artist dies. However the painting reaches the addressee.

David with the Head of Goliath, fragment, alleged portrait of Caravaggio himself, Galleria Borghese
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese
David with the Head of Goliath, fragment, Caravaggio, Galleria Borghese

After years of wandering, the eternal fugitive Caravaggio, once again on the run, this time from the Knights of Malta, completes a painting for Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V, in hope that he will vouch for him and get the pope to pardon him. He knows that the patron of art is fascinated by the figure of the young and beautiful David (see: Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David). On his way to Rome the artist dies. However the painting reaches the addressee.

The painting is one of the last works of Caravaggio. It shows the biblical David in a situation, when after the victorious battle against Goliath he is presenting his enemy’s severed head, which he will then take to Jerusalem. This victory will allow him to assume the throne and become a leader of the Jews.

The figure of David was one of the most popular topics of Italian art of the XVI and XVII century. He was depicted by the greatest artists (Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini) and by all he was presented as a handsome youth, who thanks to his cleverness and courage defeated a rival who was much stronger than he. A battle which he was doomed to lose, was won thanks to willpower and the faith in divine providence. With Caravaggio it is different: a lowered sorrowful gaze and shut mouth unanimously point to the fact that this is not the figure of a victor, but rather a resigned performer of the deed which he was fated to carry out. The feeling of concentration and suffering, which emanates from the painting, is further strengthened by the rawness of its form. As if on a stage the only illuminated parts are a part of David’s body and Goliath’s face as well as the steel blade of the sword on which there is an inscription „H-AS  OS” – the abbreviation of the Latin saying Humilitas occidit superbiam (Humility kills pride). The rest is drowned out in shadow, or more appropriately in profound darkness. The only thing reflecting from it, is David’s white shirt, a symbol of purity and innocence of the young shepherd, who is nothing like a triumphant soldier – he is almost ashamed of the deed which he carried out.

If we look more closely upon both the protagonists of the scene, we can see the facial lines of Caravaggio himself in the twisted in a deathly grimace face of Goliath. He identifies with the defeated, arrogant and self-confident giant, who was thought of as invincible. Perhaps the wound in Goliath’s forehead is a reminder of the beating in Napoli, of which Caravaggio was a victim. Yet if we look upon David, we must also see the young Caravaggio in him, an artist which we know from his early paintings (The Musicians, Sick Bacchus, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew). Therefore, he appears here in two forms, as the victim and the victor, as a youth and as an old, marked by tragic destiny man. Perhaps the painting was an expression of expiation for the sins he committed – the moving vision of his own death and eternal damnation. Perhaps it is also an accounting with life, which Caravaggio led – full of violent deeds, marked with scorn for the law and arrogance, which would find their apogee in the murder which the painter committed in Rome, drawing onto himself a sentence of exile. Or perhaps it is an expression of frantic fear of decapitation, which could be ever-present in the head of the sick and tired artist wandering the Italian cities. Perhaps it is nothing more than a sarcastic joke, in which the painter, designs his own, maybe desired death.

It is interesting to compare Caravaggio’s painting with an earlier version of this topic, created in 1607 (David with the Head of Goliath, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). In the latter, there is no longer the triumph visible in David’s face, this unanimous proof of victory of good over evil. There is more compassion here, perhaps more understanding – such an interpretation would be in accordance with all the thought about the Catholic faith, which appears in the works of this artist. It is a conviction that the sinners of the world are worthy of forgiveness. In such a sense David becomes a pre-figure of Christ conquering sin, but without a feeling of triumph, perhaps with a Catholic reflection, that sin is an inseparable part of life.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609–1610, 125x101 cm, Galleria Borghese