David with the Head of Goliath
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Arty Fact

ssohail's picture


So I tried to look up a word for “decapitation obsession” and lo and behold, the first few Google results were centered on the champion of beheadings: Caravaggio. 

I guess the Oxford University Dictionary can add this little entry to their tome:

Caravaggio: Another word for decapitate. Example sentence: “Patrick Bateman kept a girl’s severed head in his fridge in the 2000 classic, American Psycho. In the art world, you could say he pulled a Caravaggio.”

Though let’s not forget that Caravaggio had a lot going on for him besides painting severed heads. What made his work really different from your average slasher painting were the really human expressions of his models. C was keeping it real over here in David with the Head of Goliath, where he observed details of an expression that’s a mix of sorrow and empathy. All in all, it looks like young David is in a reflective rather than celebratory mood after slaying the mighty Goliath. 

These complex faces aren’t just dreamt up by the way. Caravaggio was famed for using real people as models to make biblical scenes seem like they could’ve been happening next door (see Death of the Virgin where a prostitute sat for the Virgin Mary’s portrait!). David here is in fact il suo Caravaggino, which is Italian for “his own little Caravaggio,” aka C’s studio assistant. This is the youngster who worked for Caravaggio and also, according to 17th century gossip, “lay with him,” which is basically a polite way of saying they were sexing each other up. Wonder if that was mentioned in his job description...

It wasn’t just the model for David who was selected from Caravaggio’s own life. Caravaggio also took the head of Goliath as an opportunity to include his own self-portrait. So this biblical narrative becomes an odd metaphor for a gay love story. In that vein, let’s also direct our attention towards the angle of David’s sword. That’s considered a stand-in for David’s pee-pee, i.e. a big shiny phallic symbol. If you take that to heart (or crotch), then doesn’t this painting suggest that Caravaggio was a bottom? 

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Here is what Wikipedia says about David with the Head of Goliath (Caravaggio, Rome)

David with the Head of Goliath is a painting by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. It is housed in the Galleria Borghese, Rome. The painting, which was in the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1650, has been dated as early as 1605 and as late as 1609–1610, with more recent scholars tending towards the former.

Caravaggio also treated this subject in a work dated c. 1607 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and in an early work dated c. 1600 in the Prado in Madrid.

The immediate inspiration for Caravaggio was a work by a follower of Giorgione, c.1510, but Caravaggio captures the drama more effectively by having the head dangling from David's hand and dripping blood, rather than resting on a ledge. The sword in David's hand carries an abbreviated inscription H-AS OS; this has been interpreted as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam ("humility kills pride").

David is perturbed, "his expression mingling sadness and compassion." The decision to depict him as pensive rather than jubilant creates an unusual psychological bond between him and Goliath. This bond is further complicated by the fact that Caravaggio has depicted himself as Goliath, while the model for David is il suo Caravaggino ("his own little Caravaggio"). This most plausibly refers to Cecco del Caravaggio, the artist's studio assistant in Rome some years previously, recorded as the boy "who lay with him." No independent portraits of Cecco are known, making the identification impossible to verify, but "[a] sexual intimacy between David/model and Goliath/painter seems an inescapable conclusion, however, given that Caravaggio made David's sword appear to project upward, suggestively, between his legs and at an angle that echoes the diagonal linking of the protagonist's gaze to his victim." Alternatively, based on the portrait of Caravaggio done by Ottavio Leoni, this may be a double self-portrait. The young Caravaggio (his own little Caravaggio) wistfully holds the head of the adult Caravaggio. The wild and riotous behavior of the young Caravaggio essentially had destroyed his life as a mature adult, and he reflects with a familiar hermeticism on his own condition in a painting of a related religious subject.

The masterpiece in Rome is a "twin" of a second artwork on the same subject, David and Goliath, as reported in the inventory of the Galleria Borghese dated 1693, where is found that one was located in the first room, and the other in the fourth room. According to his biographer Bellori, the artwork had been commissioned to Caravaggio by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in 1606, a work that is possibly performed on a double easel, thus generating two twin masterpieces.

The biographical interest of the painting adds another layer of meaning to an already complex work, David and Goliath standing for Christ and Satan and the triumph of good over evil in orthodox Christian iconography of the period, and also as the cold-hearted beloved who "kills" and his lover according to contemporary literary conceit. An example of the genre can be seen in the contemporary Judith and Holofernes of Cristofano Allori in the Pitti Palace, where Allori depicts himself as Holofernes, although Caravaggio has depicted David not as cruel and indifferent but as deeply moved by Goliath's death.

If the painting was a gift to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official with the power to grant Caravaggio a pardon for murder, it can also be interpreted as a personal plea for mercy. "David with the Head of Goliath [thus] demonstrates Caravaggio's gift for distilling his own experiences into an original sacred imagery that transcends the personal to become a searing statement of the human condition."

Check out the full Wikipedia article about David with the Head of Goliath (Caravaggio, Rome).

Comments (3)


If I had a sixth star to award to super extra good paintings, and this one would get it. ('Super extra good' is a technical art history term I just made up. I don't know why it is not used more often. ) Six Stars!

spurklin targedash

I see your six stars and raise you a seventh. This needs to hang in my living hall.


You have a living hall?