Daily Dose of Europe: Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath

The grotesque, in-your-face style of the painter Caravaggio feels fitting in our time of crisis. Here’s a close look at one of his most iconic works.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

In Caravaggio’s take on this familiar Bible story, David the shepherd boy has killed the giant Goliath with a rock and decapitated him with a sword. Now David holds the dripping head out at arm’s length, sticking it right in the viewer’s face.

Like David, the artist Caravaggio loved to shove startling images in the public’s face. While most artists amplified the world’s prettiness, Caravaggio painted its grittiness. Here he chronicles every gruesome detail: the dripping blood, rotting teeth, bloody wound in the forehead, and Goliath’s final expression of despair (or is it surprise?) frozen in death. David dangles the head by the hair and watches the life drain away. David’s expression is complex. He’s not gloating over his triumph, but detached, like he didn’t want to kill the poor bastard, but he had to — an executioner dispensing justice.

What exactly is David thinking? Well, Caravaggio knew. He knew exactly how it felt to have just killed someone, because he had recently murdered a man with a sword. Even as he painted this, he was running from the law.

Caravaggio’s life, like his art, was dark and dramatic. By his twenties, he was rich and famous for his startling talent and innovations. But he lived a reckless, rock-star existence — hanging out in dive bars, trashing hotel rooms, and picking fights. He used the low-life people he knew as models for his paintings, turning blue-collar workers into saints and prostitutes into Madonnas. Here, David is no heroic Renaissance man like Michelangelo’s famous statue — he looks like a teenage runaway in a dirty shirt.

Caravaggio’s specialty was stark lighting — creating a film-noir world of harsh light and deep shadows. This painting is bled of color, virtually a black-and-white crime-scene photo. Caravaggio shines the spotlight on just the details he wants to highlight: David’s skinny torso and cheek, and the giant’s horrified face.

The severed head of Goliath is none other than Caravaggio himself — an in-your-face self-portrait. That’s led scholars to see a lot of Caravaggio’s personal life in this painting. Some say David is also a portrait — of Caravaggio’s young lover, symbolizing how the young man has conquered him in love, leaving him literally smitten. Others say David is another self-portrait of Caravaggio, this time in his youth — in which case, David would be the artist’s youthful self reflecting on the ugly brute he’d become.

Caravaggio spent his final years wanted on murder charges. During that time, he forged a new direction in art. With his heightened realism, strong emotions, uncompromising details, and dramatic lighting, he set the tone for a new style: Baroque.

This painting — perhaps Caravaggio’s last — was a gift sent to the authorities along with a request that they pardon him. He portrays himself as Goliath, a message of his own self-disgust and contrition. Caravaggio was eventually pardoned, but he died shortly afterwards — appropriately, from a stab wound. Though only 38, in his short life he’d rocked the world of art — as his paintings continue to do to this day.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Caravaggio.