Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Bite 132: Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10

David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-10, oil on canvas, 125 × 101 cm, Galleria Borghese
In one of Caravaggio's last works before his mysterious disappearance and death, the artist paints himself as the dead Goliath, having been defeated by David. It is said that the young David was modelled on "his own little Caravaggio." This may refer to previous studio assistant - and lover - Cecco del Caravaggio. The diagonal sword - inscribed with an abbreviation of the phrase  "humility kills death" - mirrors David's gaze and has been seen as sexually suggestive. Or rather David may depict a younger version of the artist himself, who, in a double self-portrait, looks upon the head of his adult counterpart with sadness and compassion, in sharp contrast to the jubilant expression typical of other portrayals of this Biblical subject.

Carvaggio is on the run from the authorities, having murdered a man. He paints in desperation - his patron, Cardinal Borgese, maintained the power to grant him pardon. The result is a self-portrait alive with turmoil, his face contorted in hopelessness, mouth gaping as if about to utter his last words. 

A devastating explication on the human condition, the painting itself becomes the artist's own monumental elegy, the bold and mysterious Caravaggio having the final word.