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I first encountered this artwork when I was a junior in high school, where I was dual enrolled with a local community college so that I could fill both high school and college credits. I was in my Renassaince: The Age of Reason humanities class, when my professor showed us this piece and asked us what we saw. The answers were for the most part, obvious; we see a man who has recently beheaded another. However, all of us missed the biblical context of the painting; this is a depiction of David and Goliath.
This piece is called David with the Head of Goliath, and was painted by the incredibly influential painter Caravaggio in the early 1600s. He completed this work and sent it to the papal court in an attempt to plea for pardon; earlier in the year, Caravaggio had been accused of murder and was forced to flee from Rome to Malta. In order to truly explore the dynamic and significance of the painting, I think we need to delve into Caravaggio’s history more.
He was born under the name “Michelangelo Merisi”, but changed his name to that of his hometown, Caravaggio, in order to avoid confusion with the great sculptor and painter Michelangelo. By the age of 11, bubonic plague had taken both of Caravaggio’s parents, leaving him an orphan in Milan. Luckily, painter Simone Peterzano took him in as an apprentice, where he learned the foundations and intricacies of art in the next four years.
Once Caravaggio hit his angsty teen years, he went off and joined a street gang that consisted of both swordsmen and painters. Their motto was “without hope, without fear”. Caravaggio was a man of many vices; he was no stranger to drinking and gambling, and often sought to start fights within the streets—in one case, even severely injuring a police officer and being forced to flee. He scraped by with fellow starving artists by taking low-end commissions of simple expositions, such as portraits or still lives.
Once some of his works gained footing, the Catholic Cardinal took him in and commissioned him to make art regarding biblical passages. Here, many of his most famous works, such as The Death of a Virgin and The Taking of Christ were created. For some time, he thrived and made a respectable living; his place within the palace had protected him from any legal issues.
Caravaggio was famous for painting realistic art; he preferred to observe and base his works off of nature, rather than to paint an ideal. As such, he often used those he found in the streets of Rome as models; however, people off the streets of Rome were often the homeless, prostitutes, beggars, and the sick. Due to this, a lot of his works were controversial, because he was essentially portraying holy figures as lowly common mortals. His works are indicative of how messed up and twisted he was; the details are graphic and crude, leaving out no flaws or gory details. His works both disturb and intrigue the audience because of the shock factor; no other artist would have the nerve to do what he did, in fear of public outcry.
However, Caravaggio’s life was one that gravitated to trouble. Equipped with a quick temper and access to alcohol, Caravaggio once again sought to start a brawl—but this time, it ended in him murdering the other. Now, this is a crime that could not be pardoned by the Cardinal; as such, Caravaggio was forced to flee to Malta and go into hiding.
The reason why David with the Head of Goliath struck me was because Caravaggio actually depicted himself as the beheaded Goliath. The painting itself has a very dark composition; Caravaggio practically invented tenebrism, which is the contrast between light and shadow, and we can see how this comes through with an extremely dark background in this piece. The head of goliath itself isn’t painted in a romanticized way that other artists had; the forehead is bruised, blood is pouring from its neck and his expression is twisted. Another thing to be noted is David’s expression; it’s a mixture of sadness and compassion,
To me, this work encapsulates Caravaggio’s fragile state of mind. This piece in particular seems astonishingly sobering; it’s as if Caravaggio is admitting to his faults and owning up to them. In a sense, he was begging for pardon from the court for his accusation of murder. Interestingly enough, he was actually granted that pardon, but he never got to return to Rome because he passed away before the sentence was carried.
Overall, David with the Head of Goliath is one of Caravaggio’s most interesting pieces for me. The way he reflects himself within the painting has forced me to consider different artists and how their lives shape their works. It has definitely changed the way I view and analyze different pieces, which is a process I will carry with me as I continue with my academic career.
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