David with the Head of Goliath
At first glance this painting didn’t have much meaning to me, it looked like any other painting of the time. Another classic Baroque painting style with beautiful chiaroscuro, tenenbrism techniques and religious theme. However, once I read the head of Goliath was actually a self-portrait of the artist himself and the painting was made to be given as a gift in hopes for a pardon in Rome. This painting instantly became more interesting and made me ask the question, “Why would an artist depict himself in such a manner and why would he need a pardon?”.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
To answer the question we first have to know where he came from. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) grew up in the country with his mother and father. Sadly his father died when he was 5 or 6 yrs old and his mother passed when he was either 13 or 19 (conflicting data). The same year his mother passed Caravaggio began to study under the painter Simone Peterzano. At the age of 21 he left Caravaggio for Rome. He arrived homeless and needy and the only way for him to survive was through his paintings. Rome was the beginning and the end for Caravaggio.
After reading and watching an hour-long movie about him. Caravaggio’s biography is very complicated and still to this day controversial. Most of what is known about him is through historical court records from when he was in trouble by the law. However, the best way for me to sum up his life’s story is that Caravaggio was a successfully brilliant painter whose life was filled with drunken brawls, chronic despair, mental illness, murder, exile and his life ended with a lonely and sad death. However, his paintings were a legendary success thanks in part to the Council of Trent
The Council of Trent
The Protestant Reformation believed that Churches should not be adorned in paintings or images to worship. However, the Council of Trent which included the Catholic Church and Jesuit argued that paintings and sculptures depicting religious stories from the bible were crucial. They were important in preaching and spreading the word of the Bible to the poorer, less educated, illiterate population. This argument was Caravaggio’s salvation for many of his paintings were commissioned by the Church in Rome. In turn the church and his high power friends protected him when he got into brawls and a drunken stupor.
David with the Head of Goliath, really impacted me. Not so much the story about David and Goliath, but the hidden dual meaning within is what really touches me. To me the true meaning of this painting is not only about conquering evil with God’s strength, but also about forgiveness. Despite having a successful painting career Caravaggio’s life was filled with drunken binges and brawls, which landed him in and out of jail and one of those nights ended with him killing a man, an ultimate sin. To forgive someone is difficult, to forgive oneself is that much harder.
This painting seems to tell a story spanning generations from his youth, to his life of torment, to his ultimate salvation death. David is suspected to be a self-portrait of a young Caravaggio which symbolizes his innocence. David carries the head of a older image of Caravaggio which to me symbolizes disgrace and shame. The boy looking at his future self disgusted, with pity on his face for the life Caravaggio lived. Goliath’s head or Caravaggio’s older self is one of the last self-portraits he painted before he died. Goliath’s eyes look down as if his shame and guilt keep him from being able to look up. His sins have caught up to him and the blood spilling underneath could mean the daily loss of life, loss of self. His mouth slightly open as if trying to say something perhaps, “I’m sorry”, “Forgive me” or “Thank you”, to his younger self. David also looks as though he is relieved and happy to have stopped the agony Goliath had been enduring for so long. To me this painting screams pain, despair and begs for forgiveness not only from the audience but for himself.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a brilliant artist with a sad story. I would highly recommend reading more of him or watch this short movie about his life http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUeGRGLGXFY. I guarantee his story will be captivating.