Where? Room VIII of the Galleria Borghese
When? Around 1610
What do you see? David holds the head of Goliath after he defeated Goliath in a one-to-one battle. The painting is full of contrasts. David is depicted in the light as a young, strong, and lively man. He wears a wrinkled white cloth that is tucked into his beige pants. He is clean-shaven. He holds the sword of Goliath in his right hand and the head of Goliath in his left hand. He looks at the head of Goliath with a calm but somewhat sad expression. Most of the composition is dedicated to David.
In contrast, only the lower right of the composition is dedicated to Goliath who is depicted as an ugly, old, and defeated man. You can see the blood on his forehead, which is the place where David hit him with a stone. His eyes are still knitted, showing his reaction when he saw the stone flying towards his forehead. He has a large beard and an open mouth with rotten teeth. His head is already decaying, and a large amount of blood is dripping out of the bottom. On top of the blade of the sword is an inscription reading ‘H-AS OS.’ This refers to the Latin for ‘humilitas occidit superbiam,’ which means ‘humility kills pride.’
Backstory: Caravaggio probably painted this work while he was in Naples and this may have been the last work that he completed during his life. However, there is some doubt about the exact date of this painting. Some people think that it could have been painted as early as 1605. Popular belief, though, is that this is indeed the last painting by Caravaggio (which makes this painting more special). Francesco Boneri (also known as Cecco del Caravaggio, but no family of Caravaggio) is probably the model for David. He was a servant and pupil of Caravaggio and a moderately talented painter himself. However, some people believe that David is based on a self-portrait of a younger Caravaggio.
Other versions by Caravaggio: Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath a total of three times. In 1600, he painted his first version which is on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid. In this version, David is tying the hair of Goliath with a rope after he cut off his head. In 1607, Caravaggio painted his second version which is on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This second version is most similar to his final version. The main differences are the age of of Goliath and the way in which David holds his sword.
David and Goliath: 1 Samuel 17 describes the story of David and Goliath. Israel was at war with the Philistines. The Philistines had a hero called Goliath who was over 9 feet (2.75 meters) tall. Goliath proposed every day to the Israelites that instead of letting the armies fight each other, they should send one man to fight him. If Goliath would win the fight, the Israelites would become slaves of the Philistines, and if Goliath would lose, the Philistines would become slaves of the Israelites.
David convinced King Saul that he should fight Goliath. He went out of the army camp to meet Goliath, wearing no armor, only bringing a walking stick, a sling, and a bag with five smooth stones. He put a stone in his sling and threw it at Goliath, hitting him between his eyes. Goliath fell, and David took Goliath’s sword to behead him. He took the head of Goliath back to Jerusalem but kept the sword and spear for himself.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio near Milan, Italy. Caravaggio lived a turbulent life, and in 1606 he killed a man (though it is not clear whether that was intentional). To avoid a conviction, he fled and lived until 1610 in Naples, Malta, and Sicily. In 1610, he had hopes that he would be pardoned for his crime, and he returned by boat to Rome with several of his paintings.
When the ship arrives near Rome, Caravaggio gets arrested, and the ship leaves with his belonging for Porto Ercole. Caravaggio pays a bond to get out of jail and starts to follow the ship on foot to recover his belongings. However, he gets ill on the way and dies from a fever in Porto Ercole on July 18, 1610. While he died young, Caravaggio has left behind many popular paintings, including his The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew from 1606-1607 in the Cleveland Museum of Art and Sleeping Cupid from 1608 in the Palazzo Pitti.
Fun fact: Caravaggio probably used his own face as the model for Goliath in this painting. There are different explanations for why he did this. The conventional explanation is that he used himself as the model for Goliath to ask forgiveness from the Pope for the crimes he committed while he was in Rome.
An alternative explanation is that Caravaggio was just a rebel at heart and this was another way in which he expressed his rebellious nature. If one also believes that David is modeled after a younger Caravaggio, it would provide a more bizarre explanation for this painting. Specifically, it would mean that the young Caravaggio (through his wild behavior) has destroyed the life of the older Caravaggio. He used himself as a model in multiple paintings during his career, including Young Sick Bacchus in the Galleria Borghese and Medusa in the Uffizi Museum.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe