In this dark painting we see David, a young Israelite shepherd boy, holding up the severed head of Goliath, a Philistine man of gigantic build. The painter, Caravaggio, shows us Goliath's freshly severed neck spewing bright red blood. We can see creases of anguish on Goliath's brow, made by muscles which are still able to tense, but will shortly relax as life leaves his flesh. Although the head is detached from his body, life remains in his eyes; the eye on the left stares out at the viewer, engaging us in the action. The one on the right is fading fast, staring at the sword which did the deed and creating an imaginary line that echoes that of David's right arm. Together with the diagonal of the sword and David's fist, a rectangular frame is produced which contains the tension of the deathly event.
The Bible (1 Samuel 17 and 1 Samuel 18 1-7) tells us that during a battle between the Israelites and the Philistines, David was sent to deliver food to his three soldier brothers. Watching the action from a safe position, David saw his own side trembling at the very sight of Goliath. Attempting to instill some aggression into the Israelite army, he loudly ridiculed their efforts. Unhappy with this behaviour, his brothers demanded that he was sent before King Saul, but the punishment backfired. So impressed was the King with David's bravery that he sent him back to the battlefield, offering his own royal armour for protection. On the frontline, it was now David who was mocked, for insisting that he could defeat the Philistines armed only with a sling and the stones in his pocket. But he held his nerve. He drew his weapon and fired a shot, hitting Goliath in the middle of his forehead and killing him instantly. The Bible then tells us how David used Goliath's own sword to cut off his head.
The artist shows us life literally draining away from Goliath. Using shadow and highlights, he draws our attention to Goliath's head and David's face, evoking the moment before death. This lighting technique is called chiaroscuro (Italian, literally "light-dark"). By exaggerating contrasts between bright and dark tones, the artist directs us to key spots around the canvas, like spotlights on a stage (Caravaggio has even added a curtain in the top right-hand corner to heighten this theatrical effect). Imagine how, in a softly candle-lit church, these tones would give form to the figures, making them almost life-like, pulsing with the flickering flames.
Such a level of realism in painting is Caravaggio's trademark. Some people see his obsession with detail as relishing horror, but others find his depictions of reality enlightening, as he draws our attention to subjects often diluted and idealised by other artists. Caravaggio is often seen as painting in a hyper-realistic way; exploring with paint those things which are beyond human experiences and overloading our senses.
Caravaggio's style appealed to the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation. At this time, Rome witnessed an unprecedented building boom, with each church requiring decoration and an altarpiece. The Catholic Church needed to make the scriptures more relevant to the lives of individuals, to counter the efforts of the Protestant Reformation.
Caravaggio's use of contemporary people as models, with real human reactions and emotions, fitted with this aim. Caravaggio not only became wealthy, but also very famous. So famous, in fact, that when people saw "David with the Head of Goliath" they recognised that the severed head was actually a self-portrait. Depictions of this kind prompt psychological enquiries. What was Caravaggio trying to say about himself in this picture? Was his own portrait as a decapitated head a joke, or are there more personal reasons why he may have wanted to portray himself in this way?
On May 28, 1606, Caravaggio fled Rome after killing a man in a duel. If he had been caught he would certainly have been sentenced to death. In the last four years of his life, he stayed in Naples, Malta and Sicily, far away from papal jurisdiction. During these years in exile he painted furiously, completing major commissions, but wanting all the time to return to Rome.
This painting may have been Caravaggio's attempt to obtain a papal pardon, to secure his safe passage back to the Eternal City. Looked at this way, Caravaggio places himself in the role of the victim, and David, representing the church, weighs his head in the balance; his arms acting as scales.
The message of the David and Goliath story is that virtue is always triumphant over evil. With this painting, Caravaggio may be telling the Pope that he has already confessed and punished himself for the murder, and now sues for pardon.
This painting can be seen as part of Caravaggio: The Final Years exhibition at the National Gallery until May 22. For a free invitation, for yourself and a guest, to a special Education Private View on Friday May 6, 6.30 - 8.30pm Tel: 020 7747 5891.
Karen Hosack is head of schools education at the National Gallery