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Lets Decode This - Caravaggio Edition

What: David with the Head of Goliath

Who: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

When: 1610

Where: Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy

Hello! And welcome back to Carivaggio. Last week we learned about The School of Athens (see last post), a jam packed work full of cryptic messages. We learned by dissecting - for there is not a puzzle without its pieces. Today we will do the same piece by piece analysis, but with a work far less busy and much darker (literally and figuratively). You may be thinking that the painting you are seeing is such a simple one and questioning what, if anything, could even be dissected.

Only a fool could be spellbound by simplicity. This is where complexity lies.

Firstly, we need to discuss this work from a technical perspective. What you are looking at is a work entitled David with the Head of Goliath painted in 1610, very late in Caravaggio's career as he died in the same year. This is not the first time Caravaggio has tackled this subject. There is another work with the same title completed in 1607 which now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria (See figure 5). The complexity in the second work compared to the first is quite jarring. The work draws its subject matter from the biblical story of the seemingly small David outsmarting and slaying the evil giant Goliath.

The viewer sees a young boyish David, holding the severed head of Goliath, his blood still fresh and dripping onto the ground. The background is virtually black. A characteristic of Caravaggio's work that developed as his career matured. This is a painting technique called Tenebrism, made famous by Caravaggio. Tenebrism is the technique where an artist uses extreme contrasts of light and dark, letting darkness become a prominent feature of the painting. This technique piggybacks off of a style used by Leonardo da Vinci called Chiaroscuro (strong contrasts of light and dark). Caravaggio took this style from Leonardo and made it more extreme. Tenebrism is often taught as a way to spot Caravaggio's paintings, as it is a hallmark of the artists unique style.

As mentioned above, this painting was completed in the same year as Caravaggio's untimely death.

In 1606, Caravaggio killed, although it was most likely accidental, a young man in a bar fight. In order to escape justice, Caravaggio fled Rome and went to Naples, which was an entirely different country at the time. Caravaggio's time as an outlaw led to deep, dark and foreboding works (keep this in mind please). Although Caravaggio takes his inspiration from infamous biblical scenes, he often uses them as a vehicle to make profound personal statements. This work is a key example of this.

Now that you know some general info about the work - Let's decode this.

Figure 1.

Let us start off with David. In the Bible story, David is strong and shows no remorse for slaying the evil giant Goliath. Here, Caravaggio tells a more complex story. We see David as young and almost unassuming. His expression is not that of a hardened killer, but rather that of someone in deep contemplation. He is overwhelmed by the severity of his actions and his expression is one of sadness and compassion (as noted by author/artist Catherine Puglisi). His eyes gaze at the head of Goliath, emotions and flesh still raw and fresh. The face of David is said to be modeled after Caravaggio's young lover, an idea that will be discussed further below. Here, David is moved by the death of Goliath.

Figure 2:

Does Goliath look strangely familiar to you? Do you feel like you have seen his face before? Yes! You have. This is indeed the self portrait of Caravaggio. If you think back to blog post number 2- Caravaggio inserted himself in his own fresco as a sign of pride (see figure 6). Here Caravaggio depicts himself as the decapitated Goliath for an entirely different reason. Remember when I said to remember that Caravaggio's time in exile led to his darkest works. Well folks, here it is. Caravaggio is asking the viewer for forgiveness. He is punishing himself for his own sins by inserting himself as the villain; as an evil being. He knows he was wrong to evade justice and he is admitting that the burden is too hard to bear. He is severing what made him a killer. Absolution through painting.

Figure 3.

This little detail is what makes a Caravaggio a Caravaggio. This inscription on David's sword is the abbreviation H-AS OS. It has been interpreted as an abbreviation for the latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam (humility kills pride).

As I've been writing this, I cannot stop thinking about that phrase. Humility kills pride. What was Caravaggio meant to be saying? This painting is riddled with ideas of anti pride. David is supposed to be beaming with pride. He has overcome a giant, yet he is joyless. Caravaggio himself has skipped his pride, and admitted he is a sinner in the most public way possible. Maybe he is trying to say that the strength of man is folly. Even the hero's have emotions. Even the enlightened are weak. None of us are immune to this turmoil no matter the feats we may accomplish.

Figure 4:

Lastly, I want to briefly discuss the relationship between these two figures. As I mentioned in figure 1, David's likeness was modeled after Caravaggio's lover. To me, even without knowing that information, I feel a sort of erotic tension between these two. Keep in mind that although Caravaggio led a less than saintly life, he was a Catholic man and painted some of the most iconic Catholic images in the history of art. Could the biographical aspect of this work go even deeper. Could this be the idea of Caravaggio's lover slaying the sins within him? Could it be Caravaggio trying to show the triumph of good verses evil? Purity verses defilement? What do you think?

Figure 5 (for your reference)

David with the Head of Goliath, 1607, oil on wood, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Figure 6 (for your reference)

(It is not a blurry image, the paint is just cracked irl)

Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, 1597, Oil on plaster ceiling, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Villa Ludovisi, Rome.

Well! There it is folks. Another painting decoded and so much more discovered. I hope you enjoyed and I know I always ask for feedback but PLEASE give me feedback!!! I want to hear from you. Contact me here, through my email, or via Instgram @carilowy.

See you next time,


*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.

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