Most of you will be familiar with the biblical story of David, the young shepherd boy who offers to defend Israel against the Philistines, their greatest enemy, by battling single-handedly their champion, the giant Goliath, more than 3000 years ago.
The confrontation took place at a valley separating opposing hills, where each army lay. Both armies were in a deadlock as, to reach the enemy, they would have to come down the mountains where they were perching, cross the valley below and climb the opposite hill, thus making themselves vulnerable to the enemy on the higher ground.
Goliath proposed then that the battle should be decided by two warriors alone coming down at the same time from their respective camps and confronting each other at the bottom of the valley.
Nobody on the Israeli camp felt they were up to the challenge. Goliath was, after all, a fully armored giant armed with a spear and a sword, ready for heavy infantry combat. David, however, surprised Saul, the king of Israel at the time, by asking for permission to battle the Philistine himself. David refused the armor and weapons offered by Saul, explaining he was not used to them. He was a shepherd and his successful method for defending his flocks against lions and wolves had always been a simple sling to throw stones.
Both warriors came down. Goliath was expecting a physical fight. David, from a distance, simply put a stone on his sling, rotated it as fast as he could and threw it at the giant, hitting him right in the most vulnerable spot between his eyes. Goliath fell down and David cut his head off with a sword. The Philistines ran away.
Caravaggio was on the run for having killed a man and had been banished from Rome at the time he painted this work. So it seems obvious that he could easily relate to the theme. He was also trying to get an official papal pardon for his crime, and the fact that this painting was given as a gift to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official who could help him with this, seems like a useful strategy to meet his objective.
In the painting, we can identify clearly the main characteristics of the style of the artist, a combination of tenebrism (or chiaroscuro) and naturalism. Such characteristics are: the use of a biblical/mythological theme in which the characters portrayed ara painted from contemporary models; the theatricality and dramatization of the representation (this could be a scene out of a play or a movie); the strategic lighting of the painting, focusing harshly on the subjects and darkening everything else; the brutal realism of he scene.
This painting has been interpreted in many different ways. My favorite interpretation, though, is the one that says this is a double self-portrait. David would represent the younger Caravaggio, whereas Goliath, the contemporary one. The fact that David does not look like someone who is celebrating a victory, but looks depressed and worried instead, can mean that the older Caravaggio regrets the fact that all the potential he had in his youth for realizing great things was wasted and destroyed by his volatile and abrasive personality. Food for thought.
We will be getting back with more interesting facts about Caravaggio’s stunning paintings in another blog post. Watch this space.
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(30 speaking and writing activities based on famous works by Caravaggio)