The meaning of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath

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Caravaggio has always been basically a provocator. He was so in his turbulent private life, which often carried him in the midst of brawls, street games and cheaters that led him to dozens of lawsuits and arrests. But he was so also in his artistic mastery: the revolution he put in place between 1500 and 1600 introduced a new realism in the history of art, and for the first time the subjects represented in the painting had all the contours, the details and the dignity of real objects, rejecting any kind of idealization. Something that was perfect as long as he painted portraits and still lifes, but some problems arose when the Cardinals of Rome commissioned him to paint characters and situations of the Christian tradition. Caravaggio was the first to represent Christ, Mary and the apostles in their human flesh, rejecting their sacred connotation, even when they were supposed to be exhibited in churches and chapels of Rome. The Catholic Church commissioned him a canvas to celebrate the glory of the Virgin Mary, and he used prostitutes as models to show her bodily reality. Yes, Caravaggio was a shameless provocator.

When he arrived in Rome, around 1594, Caravaggio was followed by the fame of a great innovator, but also by some rumors about a murder committed in Milan, from which he was fleeing. Among the many detractors of his style, he painted some of his masterpieces, including The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and Rest on the Flight into Egypt, but he also received some strong refusal because some of his representations of characters of the Old and New Testament were unacceptable for the Catholic Church. The most resounding case was Death of the Virgin.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1604, Louvre Museum (Paris)

Apart from the timid aureola, Caravaggio’s Virgin Mary appears in the most human and bodily forms possible. His is a very physical and unglorious death. Someone said that he used as model the body of a prostitute drowned in the Tiber, and that’s the reason of the swelling body. Someone else will interpret that swelling as the sign of a pregnancy, which could also be symbolic (the materialization of the Divine Grace), but there was no way the commissioners could accept something like this: the idea of a Pregnant Virgin Mary at the time of death was inadmissible. The painting was rejected, and represented a hit to Caravaggio’s pride. Retrospectively, we would assume that this instability increased the impetuance of his private life: shortly thereafter, in a brawl erupted on the street, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni. The sentence was inevitable: death by decapitation.

From there the dishonorable escape, the protection received in the places where he will stop: Naples, Malta, Sicily, then again Naples. More masterpieces (The Flagellation of Christ, The Seven Works of Mercy, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist), always incredibly realistic, always revolutionary from an iconographic point of view. And more problems with law, an imprisonment in Valletta and the escape to Syracuse, Sicily. As he returns to Naples, in 1609, Caravaggio is thirtyeight years old, he is tired of escaping and discouraged by the death sentence that still hangs on his head, forcing him away from Rome, the real capital of art in that period. It was in that year that he painted his famous David with the head of Goliath, today exhibited at Rome’s Galleria Borghese.

Caravaggio-_ David_con_la_testa_di_Golia
Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath, 1609, Galleria Borghese (Rome)

The psychoanalytic interpretations of this painting are several. The treats of Goliat’s head are obviously the recognizable ones of Caravaggio, and they have an obvious origin: from that sentence in Rome, the decapitation will be a constant in his artistic production, a way to exorcise the fear of dying for that fate. Unlike the previous representations of that subject, however, Goliath appears as old, suffering, the image of abandonment. David, instead, has for the first time an expression of compassion and pity, the violence is completely absent from his face, the gaze shows no anger for Goliath’s sins. Almost a merciful eye. There are some interpretations that see also David as a self-portrait, this time representing the young Caravaggio, still clean, out of the life of perdition that will follow him afterwards. On the sword you can read the letters “H-AS OS”, from the Augustinian motto “Humilitas Occidit Superbiam“, Humility Kills Pride. The painting represents therefore the young and pure Caravaggio that erases the old and sinful Caravaggio, through the decapitation that followed him for years. An admission of guilt, and at the same time a request for pity on the errors committed. The pity that we can see in David’s face.

Caravaggio will attach the David with the head of Goliath into his last request for grace, sent to Cardinal Scipione Borghese as mediator on Pope Paul V. The suffering face of the beheaded Goliath apparently worked: the year after, Caravaggio came to the rumor that the Pope was preparing the revocation of the death sentence, and gets istantly into a small boat directed to Porto Ercole, which would make a short stopover in Ladispoli, not far from Rome. According to the legend, Caravaggio brought with him several paintings, which would represent the price to be paid to Cardinal Scipione Borghese in exchange for the definitive freedom. The boat stopped in Ladispoli, Caravaggio landed there and the boat left immediately, carrying those canvases of vital importance. Caravaggio managed to rent a second boat to reach Porto Ercole, but the boat was probably already on the way back. Caravaggio will die in a sanitarium in Porto Ercole, for an intestinal infection, without having obtained the much coveted freedom. The Pope’s grace will be sent a few days later, towards Naples, when Caravaggio was already buried.

The decapitation never happened, but that face marked by a sinful life didn’t succeed to obtain the mercy he often painted.

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