Caravaggio: Humanism and Severed Heads

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610
Existing at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum from the effervescent pop art of Mary Heilmann and Brian Wilson (both of whom I featured last week) is the tortured art of Caravaggio, who, among other subject matter, enjoyed depicting severed heads. In "David With the Head of Goliath" the severed head is actually a self-portrait. Maybe Caravaggio was a humanist the way that the punk rockers were: the violence they embraced was not anti-human but a corrective to the peace and love crowd, who in their view denied aspects of existence. Maybe it's just the old Rousseau-Hobbes dichotomy being played out in different times and places. One thing is clear: Caravaggio was conflicted. But unless we are a pure ideologue, we all are too.

Art historian Troy Thomas offers these observations about Caravaggio's painting, touching on the ways that Caravaggio himself was no stranger to violence:
Caravaggio may have created this painting in part as a meditative assessment of his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni on a Roman Street in 1606, a crime prompted by the artist's pride, which led him to a duel. In this painting Caravaggio represents himself as damned, as the embodiment of evil. Through his gruesome portrait as the severed head of Goliath he reveals his failure as a Christian, having committed a mortal sin. The young David, Caravaggio's "slayer," shows a pensive mix of compassion and regret.


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