David with the Head of Goliath


Keywords: DavidHeadGoliath

Work Overview

David with the Head of Goliath
Italian: Davide con testa di Golia
Artist Caravaggio
Year c.1610
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 125 cm × 101 cm (49 in × 40 in)
Location Galleria Borghese

David with the Head of Goliath is a painting by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio. It is housed in the Galleria Borghese, Rome.[1] The painting, which was in the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese[a] in 1650,[3] has been dated as early as 1605 and as late as 1609–1610, with more recent scholars tending towards the former.[4]

Caravaggio also treated this subject in a work dated c.1607, currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and in an early work dated c. 1600 in the Prado in Madrid.[5]

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.[1] 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").[1]

David is perturbed, "his expression mingling sadness and compassion."[1] 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."[6] 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 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.[7] 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,[8] although Caravaggio has depicted David not as cruel and indifferent but as deeply moved by Goliath's death.[6]

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."

David has killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a stone from his sling. He then cuts of the head to show it to his brothers-in-arms.

This is one of Caravaggio's last works. Some claim that the giant's head is a self-portrait. David does not seem to celebrate his victory. Maybe he is disgusted with the killing of a man, even though it was an enemy. Or maybe Caravaggio is projecting his own disgust. Caravaggio had some experience as a killer: in 1606, he had killed a man with his sword during a quarrel over a bet.

Earlier paintings by Caravaggio on the same subject date from 1601 and 1606.

A study in the life and tortuous soul of Caravaggio is woven throughout his rendering of David with the Head of Goliath, a painting which has been estimated to have originated in the years between 1605 and 1610.

The Painting
David with the Head of Goliath is, according to art historians, a self-portrait of Caravaggio. Some argue that both figures are representative of Caravaggio, with the young figure of David representing young Caravaggio, and the detached and bloody head of Goliath represents Caravaggio as a man.

The painting shows a young man, David, with his chest partially bared as though his shepherd’s tunic had fallen in disarray in the heat of the conflict. David’s left hand grips the hair from which the decapitated head of Goliath is suspended. Goliath’s mouth is partially open, as though the moment of death was mid-scream. His sightless eyes glare dazedly beneath hooded lids at nothing, as blood drips grotesquely from his detached head.

As David holds the head, he looks at it with a downcast expression that has been the subject of much conjecture. Some believe the look is pensive, compassionate, and filled with remorse. Others see a look of quiet triumph, exemplified by the brightness of his face in contrast with the rest of the painting.

The weapon in David’s hand is not the famous sling of the Biblical story, but Goliath’s own sword which was used by David against him. A close look at the sword shows the following inscription: “H-AS OS” which is believed to be an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Humilitas occidit superbiam” (humility shall kill pride).

Art Imitates Life
It has been said that all artists portray themselves in their work. As over-generalized as this statement may seem, it does seem applicable to David with the Head of Goliath. The face of Goliath bears a striking resemblance to portraits of Caravaggio as an adult. Some suggest that David is the younger version of Caravaggio, which may bring about the interpretation of the painting as a portrayal of the self-destructive nature that Caravaggio had.

Another theory is that the figure of David is actually that of a young art assistant who lived with Caravaggio, and who may have also been his lover. There is little to substantiate this, other than a single entry written by Caravaggio in which he referred to the young man as the “one who lies with me.”

Regardless of the identities of those portrayed in this intense painting, the emotion with which the painting is charged is still palpable today. The conflict of small vs. massive, the bittersweet victory of winning the fight at the expense of a human life, and the futility of a giant bully against a boy who knows what he must do, is all too evident.

The painting is currently on display at the Galleria Borghese in Rome where it has remained since being sent there by a penitent Caravaggio as a plea to the Pope to remove the price on his head. The Pope did grant his request, but Caravaggio died of a fever before receiving the news.

Nobody knows which was Caravaggio's last work. This painting, which was in the collection of Scipione Borghese as early as 1613, has been dated as early as 1605 and as late as 1609-10. Its melancholy would suit the gloomy thoughts of the artist's final years. The subject matter recalls the Beheading of St John the Baptist in Valletta, but this time there is no brilliant colour and, as a small picture, it has an intimacy that was not evident in the grand public work.

The boy handles his trophy with disgust. 'In that head [Caravaggio] wished to portray himself and in the boy he portrayed his Caravaggino,' wrote Manilli in 1650. If Goliath's head is indeed Caravaggio's, there is an element of self disgust in this painting. The device recalls the way that Michelangelo, in the Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel, placed an anguished face with features evidently his own onto the flayed body of St Bartholomew, but Caravaggio's mood is closer to one of despair. As a witness to God's light, Bartholomew takes his seat in heaven: Goliath, God's enemy, is doomed to everlasting night.

Dirty silver, black and browns dominate the picture. The light shows David to look like a boy from the street, whose sword has just a drop of blood on it to show that, like Caravaggio once, he knows what it is to have just killed a man. Another drop of blood in the midst of the giant's forehead confirms that he has been felled by a stone.

A decade later Cardinal Scipione commissioned a statue of David about to catapult a stone at Goliath. Bernini was far removed from the anxieties of the older master, and saw David's action as joyful and exhilarating, a triumph of the human spirit expressing itself through the athletic exertions of a beautiful human body.

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.