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David with the Head of Goliath

February 21, 2011










David with the Head of Goliath

Caravaggio 1607 or 1609-1610.

49 ¼” x 39 3/8”

Oil on canvas.

Borghese Gallery, Rome.

The date of this piece is unclear because its color palette is characteristic of Caravaggio’s earlier Naples years (1606-1608), but it is also believed to have been painted at the end of Caravaggio’s life as contemplation.  The earlier date is carried more evidence in terms of style, for how was he to know he would die in 1610?  The painting was found in Naples and made its way into Scipione Borghese’s private collection (Moir 116).

A gruesome image, Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath is a reminder of death, an allegory, and perhaps even a plea for pardon.  Although Caravaggio did not show us the actual execution as in Judith Killing Holofernes, we are witnesses to a fleeting moment between life and death.  The lifelessness of Goliath’s severed head contrasts the young, vital David.  Even Goliath’s face shows signs of pre-mortality – half of his face seems to still be alive.

Caravaggio’s David is classical and allegorical.  His body type is somewhat ideal, but also not as supple as his earlier paintings of young boys.  David dons a humble, neutral robe.  Moir reveals that David is in the pose of Justice, with a sword in one hand, but Goliath’s head instead of scales in the other.  David is also compared to Christ as “ultimate judge and savior” – David assumed responsibility for taking Goliath’s life, and saved the people from his wrath (116).

Goliath’s head appears to resemble Caravaggio.  This could be a self-portrait of the artist.  In 1606, Caravaggio murdered a man.  Helen Langdon explains how this piece could be a plea for pardon from the pope.  Caravaggio’s culture was obsessed with salvation and redemption.  Prisoners and criminals were visually tortured with images of cruelty and violence in order to evoke penitence (384-385).  This could be why Caravaggio decided to paint such an image for his own redemption.  Not only did his violent past provide ample models to his memory, but it was also an effective way of gaining pardon.  However, Caravaggio died before he was able to enjoy his eventual pardoning.

Langdon, Helen.  Caravaggio: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1998.

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.


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