David and Goliath by Caravaggio: The Art of Despair

David and Goliath by Caravaggio.
David and Goliath by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, 1606). On display at the Galleria Borghese. (wikicommons)

Ever find yourself in a hole wondering how you got there?  In the summer of 1606, the famous painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was in deep.  Having killed a man a few months earlier, Caravaggio was on the run.  His career, reputation, everything he had built was gone, destroyed by his own hand.  His life in shambles, Caravaggio did what any good artist does in a period of desperation – he got to work.  The result was David and Goliath, one of the darkest paintings Caravaggio ever created (a notable achievement from an artist celebrated for his use of black).  Taking the familiar biblical story, Caravaggio twists it from a tale of triumph into one of anguish.  David presents to the viewer his trophy – the contorted head of Goliath, which in this case is a self-portrait of Caravaggio.  Darkness and gloom surround David and the severed head, isolating the pair in an encroaching oblivion.  This is despair in the form of paint – the work of a man who feels salvation to be forever beyond reach. 

Style – Paint It, Black

In painting David and Goliath, Caravaggio leveraged every ounce of his formidable talent.  What first strikes the viewer is the painting’s realism, particularly Goliath’s severed head.  In it, we see the physical reminders of violence – most notably the indentation in the forehead (almost like a gunshot wound) and the blood draining from the neck.  Even more haunting is the expression in Goliath’s face.  The wide left eye and open mouth convey deep agony, while the right eye shows the glazed look of death.  This is Goliath’s final moment, with all its shock and pain, frozen in time.  Next, your eyes are drawn to the figure of David.  The young man holds up the head in front of him as if to present it to the viewer.  David’s expression (in what is supposed to be his moment of triumph) appears sorrowful and uncertain.  He is profoundly alone and knows it.

The painting is also a notable example of the light-dark (chiaroscuro) technique for which Caravaggio is particularly well known.  David and the head of Goliath are surrounded by darkness.  Goliath’s hair almost merges with it, as does David’s right arm and shoulder.  Against this darkness shines David’s face and bare chest.  This contrast in light adds to the drama of the piece.  David stands alone, and while ambivalent about his victory, seems to be emerging from the light.  While Goliath, humiliated and in agony, fades into darkness.

History – The Flight from Rome

As shocking as the painting is in its own right, the story behind it is even more fascinating.  Painted in 1606, David and Goliath was completed during the climax of the most turbulent period of Caravaggio’s acrimonious life.  Only months before, Caravaggio had killed Ranuccio Tomassoni, a well-connected pimp from a noble and influential Roman family.  For such a crime, the penalty was death.  Caravaggio had no choice but to flee Rome, the city where he had lived most of his adult life and had staked his fortune.

Stress had been mounting on Caravaggio in the years leading up to the murder of Tomassoni.  The Church was turning away from his austere style of painting, resulting in fewer commissions.  Of the commissions he did receive, his patrons were less than pleased with the final product.  Two of his altarpieces, one of which was to be put up in St Peter’s, were rejected. While these works ultimately found good homes among private buyers, Caravaggio’s sensitive ego was probably not assuaged.  While this was going on, Caravaggio rejected lucrative private commissions and failed to complete the work he had already taken on.  This collectively took a toll on the artist’s finances, which fell deeper into red. 

The Madonna of the Palafrenieri by Caravaggio.  It depicts the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus while St Anne looks on.  Jesus steps on a serpent (which represents Satan), crushing its head.
Madonna of the Palafrenieri by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, 1606). This work was to be placed on an altar in St Peters but was ultimately rejected and removed – a stinging rebuke to Caravaggio. (wikicommons)

Caravaggio responded to these setbacks by becoming increasingly violent.  His many run-ins with the sbirri – the papal police – during these years are the stuff of legend.  In 1604, Caravaggio was arrested for assaulting a waiter over an offhand remark about a plate of artichokes.  Later that year, he would be arrested again for throwing stones at a police officer.  The following year, he attacked a man with a hatchet in the crowded Piazza Navona, reportedly striking him from behind then running into a nearby church.  The man lay unconscious and bleeding for some time before recovering. And these are just a few of the more notable episodes. To list out his full rap sheet during these three years would require many more pages.

All of this led inexorably to the events of May 1606, when Caravaggio had his fateful run in with Tomassoni.  Like many events in Caravaggio’s life, the circumstances surrounding his murder of Tomassoni are not entirely known.  Many theories have been put forward regarding the causes of the fight, including an argument over a tennis match, a drunken brawl, a gambling debt, and even geopolitical tension between France and Spain.  Any one of these are possible given Caravaggio’s well documented proclivity for violence. 

Entrance to the Tordinona Theater in Rome.
The entrance to the Tordinona Theater in Rome. In the early 17th century, this was a prison. Caravaggio spent many a night here, particularly in the years leading up to Tomassoni’s death. (photo credit: Lalupa/Wikicommons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Perhaps the most persuasive theory comes from art historian and Caravaggio biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon, who suggests that Caravaggio killed Tomassoni in a duel.  To support this, Graham-Dixon notes that the fatal injury was sustained on a tennis court – a flat and wide area, where fencing matches were often held.  There were four participants on each side, suggesting some pre-agreed number.  Most importantly, almost everyone involved in the incident (even friends of the victim) immediately fled Rome.  Had the men accompanying Caravaggio and Tomassoni been party to a duel, then fleeing Rome was the prudent move.  Dueling was illegal and stiff penalties were meted out to anyone participating in them.

What might have caused the duel calls for even more speculation.  Graham-Dixon notes the two men had one notable connection – the prostitute Fillide Melandroni.  Tomassoni was Fillide’s pimp and occasional lover.  Documents from the time show that Fillide guarded this relationship jealously, once even attacking another prostitute with a knife for sleeping with him.  Her relationship with Caravaggio is less certain, though they were definitely familiar. She modeled for him in a number of his most famous works, including Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Judith Beheading Holofernes, and The Entombment of Christ.  He once even painted her portrait, gifting to her the finished work.  This raises the question, did Caravaggio – in a fit of jealous rage – challenge Tomassoni to a duel?  We may never know for sure.

Portrait of Fillide Melandroni by Caravaggio.  She wears a simple white shirt with a black patterned overlay down the center.  She holds a small bunch of jasmine flowers to her breast.  Melandroni seems to be almost glowing.
Portrait of a Courtesan by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, c. 1597). The painting is of Fillide Melandroni, who appears almost glowing. She held on to this painting until her death. It would later wind up in Berlin, where it was destroyed during WWII. (wikicommons)

If this were the case, then the duel was self-defeating; Caravaggio would never again set foot in Rome.  With the help of his powerful patrons, Caravaggio fled – first to the hills outside the city and then on to Naples.  During his absence, he was charged and convicted with Tomassoni’s murder and sentenced to death.  It was during Caravaggio’s flight from Rome that he painted David and Goliath, which he gifted to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, an avid collector of his works and the head of papal justice.  If Caravaggio was to have any hope of ever returning to the Eternal City, Borghese’s support would be essential.

Themes and Symbolism – Humilitas Occidit Superbiam

Caravaggio’s personal circumstances offer significant insight into the symbolism in David and Goliath.  This was a painting for an audience of one – Scipione Borghese.  Caravaggio understood that to win Borghese’s support for a pardon, it was essential that he show remorse.  In this regard, the painting is a resounding success.  The agonized expression in Goliath’s face (a self-portrait) and the darkness surrounding it convey pure despair.  Adding to this is the engraving on David’s sword: H-AS OS, which stands for humilitas occidit superbiam – humility slayeth pride.  Hubris has been punished and the perpetrator humbled, Caravaggio assures the Cardinal.

A close up of David's sword from Caravaggio's David and Goliath.  The acronym H-AS O S, barely visible, runs down the center of David's sword.
Detail showing the sword engraving in Caravaggio’s David and Goliath.

It was an ingenuous ploy for a pardon – a petition in the form of a painting.  But can a figurative head ever replace a real one?  Caravaggio may have had reason to think so.  Borghese was known to be an admirer of his paintings and would often go to great lengths to obtain them.  Circumstantial evidence suggests that Caravaggio’s plan almost worked.  Borghese appears to have supported a papal pardon and lobbied on Caravaggio’s behalf.  Unfortunately, we can never know for sure, as Caravaggio died just as the sought after pardon was supposedly on the verge of being issued.

Caravaggio’s David and Goliath was not his only work to depict decapitation. Two other notable examples include his Medusa and Judith Beheading Holofernes.

Painted in 1597, Medusa is Caravaggio’s first attempt at (self-)decapitation.  Like in David and Goliath, Caravaggio used his own face in place of the victim’s. The painting is done on a canvas wrapped over a tournament shield. It shows us the perspective of the hero Perseus, who – according to legend – used the reflection from his shield to decapitate the fabled monster.  In creating this work, Caravaggio is said to have used a convex mirror to get the perspective and proportions in the painting just right.  Upon completion, the piece was given to Caravaggio’s patron, Cardinal del Monte, who in turn gave it as a wedding gift to his benefactor, Ferdinando de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  The shield was reportedly well received and was displayed prominently within the Medici collection.

Medusa by Caravaggio (oil on canvas over wood, c. 1598). On display at the Uffizi. (Photo: JK/Artifacts)

Judith Beheading Holofernes is another work with decapitation as its theme.  Unlike Medusa and David and Goliath, this painting depicts the act of decapitation itself.  In this biblical story, the heroine Judith (modeled by Fellide) seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes.  Invited into his tent, Judith slays the invader with his own sword.  The disgust and ruthless efficiency with which Judith is depicted beheading the general was shocking at the time and remains so today.  It is a painting which hauntingly blends intimacy and violence.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio.  Like Caravaggio's David and Goliath, this painting too has decapitation at its center.  Holofernes lies naked on his bead, screaming, as Judith impales his neck.  Judith's expression is one of concentration, seemingly unmoved by the brutality of the act.
Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio (oil on canvas, c. 1598). On display at Palazzo Barberini. (wikicommons)

Final Thoughts on Caravaggio’s David and Goliath

A couple of years after painting David and Goliath, Caravaggio wound up in Sicily. Still on the run, his mood remained erratic and gloomy.  One telling story regarding his mindset during these years comes from a supposed visit he made to a church.  Upon entering, one of his friends offered him holy water, noting that the water was reputed to cleanse one’s sins.  Before accepting, Caravaggio asked what type of sins the water cleansed. “Venial,” the man responded.  Caravaggio then declined, noting that all of his all of his sins were mortal. 

There is a sense of tragic guilt in many of Caravaggio’s works.  David and Goliath is one, showing a moment in which the artist may have believed salvation was forever beyond reach.  From this point on, darkness and shadow would pervade Caravaggio’s paintings as never before. His haunted psyche – jumping from despair to ecstasy to despair again – would color his art, bringing it to an emotional intensity it had never before reached.

Sources/Further Reading on David and Goliath by Caravaggio

  1. For more information on Caravaggio, see this post on the artist’s life and most famous paintings.
  2. For another example of realism in the art of Caravaggio, see this post on The Musicians – a work which celebrates love and artistic toil.
  3. For more on light and shadow in the art of Caravaggio, see this post on The Sacrifice of Isaac.
  4. Graham-Dixon, Andrew. “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.” Allen Lane and Penguin Books. London. 2010
  5. Schneider, Laurie. “Donatello and Caravaggio: The Iconography of Decapitation.” American Imago, vol. 33, no. 1, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976, pp. 76–91
  6. Posèq, Avigdor W. G. “Bernini’s Self-Portraits as David.” Source: Notes in the History of Art, vol. 9, no. 4, [Ars Brevis Foundation Inc., University of Chicago Press], 1990, pp. 14–22.
  7. Stone, David M. “Signature Killer: Caravaggio and the Poetics of Blood.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 94, no. 4, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., CAA], 2012, pp. 572–93.
  8. Amelia Arenas. “Sex, Violence and Faith: The Art of Caravaggio.” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, vol. 23, no. 3, [Trustees of Boston University through its publication Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Trustees of Boston University], 2016, pp. 35–52.
  9. Giardino, Allesandro. “ Beheading: The Lesson of Caravaggio” NeMLA Italian Studies, Vol. 37 (Dec. 2016):158-177. 
  10. Chorpenning, Joseph F. “Another Look at Caravaggio and Religion.” Artibus et Historiae, vol. 8, no. 16, IRSA s.c., 1987, pp. 149–58