Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath is a truly important picture expressing art's underlying paradigm, every painter paints himself, in a clear and unmistakeable way. It was reported in the mid-seventeenth century that both heads, Goliath's and David's, are self-portraits at different stages of life though David is described as “il suo Caravaggino”, or in English “his little Caravaggio.”1 This clearly refers to how Caravaggio painted himself when young because although his real name was Michelangelo Merisi he was known in Rome as "Caravaggio".2 Remarkably, despite this, few art historians have noted Caravaggio’s self-identification in both figures. One thought it was partly sub-conscious, a psychic echo of the artist's violent past.3 Michael Fried, on the other hand, a scholar who often recognizes the act of creation depicted in art thought otherwise. He recently described David's gesture "as a disguised mirror representation of the act of applying paint to canvas, though there is also an important sense in which the head of Goliath may be taken as standing for the painting itself."4 God bless Fried!

Other scholars unable to explain why Caravaggio would kill himself, even in a painting, suggest the phrase refers to someone else, “a boy from the town, Caravaggio” though they cannot say who.5 It is an escape clause. In the world of literal art scholars, artists do not kill themselves in a painting so they imagine something else or ignore the problem.

What we really see is Caravaggio as the young David holding up his “work of art”, Goliath's head, for us to admire. He has just “executed” it as artists execute their paintings. (Rembrandt did something similar in Self-Portrait with a Dead Bittern.) Goliath's head is also a self-portrait thus conveying that every painter paints himself. It is also, in a further unrecognized pun, his capolavoro or masterpiece. The Italian literally means head-work.

David’s weapon is normally a sling but by showing David holding Goliath’s just-decapitated head, Caravaggio was able to depict a sword instead, long and thin like a paintbrush.

(For similar examples, see Brush and Palette.)

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Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

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The sword's positioning also suggests an “erect phallus”, a probable reference to Caravaggio’s mental conception of the image. Michelangelo, Titian and others often used such sexual puns in their works because, throughout the history of art, sex and the production of art have been closely linked. Indeed the body and its functions were thought to reveal the wisdom of Divine architecture. Centuries later Renoir was still saying that he "painted with his phallus" and there are many similar references from the Renaissance.6 

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Detail of Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath

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Next, as the fabric in the top left corner suggests, David has just entered Saul’s tent to show him the head. It appears to be night outside. The setting at night, inside a royal enclosure, is an interior symbol for Caravaggio’s mind. Moreover, in holding the head towards where the painter once stood, Caravaggio may also be suggesting that he is the king as well, an alchemical symbol of the ego-spirit.

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Detail of Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath

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David's melancholic and introspective gaze combined with a frown is also difficult for literal interpreters to explain. Why would David look so thoughtful in such a ghastly scene? For us, aware that the head is only a work of art, it is simpler. Melancholy was the traditional humor for an artist; frowns to indicate deep thought had long been used in artist's self-portraits; and introspection emphasizes that he is thinking inwards, not outwards. 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath

Click image to enlarge.

Few early masterpieces so clearly express that every painter paints himself but scholars, convinced that artists tell logical stories that even a patron can understand, have long tried to deny the obvious: both heads represent the artist. This painting, like so many others over the centuries, depicts its own creation in the artist’s mind. Goliath, too, is not a symbol of evil, as conventionally claimed, but of chaos, the chaos so central to creative thinking. Art is first imagined in a mind full of chaotic and random thoughts. As two or more combine spontaneously, the artist begins to impose order on the chaos to create the work. Goliath's death, his head tamed by being depicted forever in mid-scream, is a metaphoric description of that process. Yet while David with the artist's frown looks inward to depict the inner process of creation, Goliath - also with an artist's frown - looks outward. He is the painting.

Notes:

1. Walter Friedlander, Caravaggio Studies (Princeton University Press) 1955, p.202
2. Hibbard, Caravaggio (Harper & Row) 1983, p.1
3. Hibbard, pp. 262-7
4  Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton University Press) 2010, p. 63
5. Anna Coliva, "David with the Head of Goliath" in Caravaggio, ed. Claudio Strinati (Milan: Skira) 2010, p. 228
6. Maria Ruvoldt, The Italian Renaissance Imagery of Inspiration: Metaphors of Sex, Sleep and Dreams (Cambridge University Press) 2004, pp. 71-82; Eric F. Langley, “Anatomizing the early-modern eye: a literary case-study”, Renaissance Studies 20, June 2006, p.347; See also Abrahams, Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta and Abrahams, Michelangelo's Art Through Michelangelo's Eyes, Pt. 2, pp. 19-21

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Original Publication Date: 24 Jan 2011
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