Written on March 2010 under the inspiration of Simon Schama’s “Power of Art” on Caravaggio…
With his last painting David with the Head of Goliath, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio sought the pardon of the Pope for the murders he committed. Having decapitated Goliath, David shows the head of the monster, a self-portrait of the painter, to the audience. It is a self-execution on canvas.
Triumphant but not proud, David lays his eyes on the head of his enemy instead of staring at us with a victorious exclamation. His is a merciful, sorrowful, and pensive gaze. He himself looks thoughtful and in pain as if there is an intimate relationship between these two enemies, as if David and Goliath are brothers belonging to bright and dark sides of the same soul. An abbreviated inscription of the Latin phrase Humilitas occidit superbiam (humility conquers pride) shines on David’s sword.
As the “painter of sinners,” Caravaggio reinterpreted the eternal struggle between the good and the evil, whose depiction in art had been the prime mission of the Church, by shedding his dark lights on the tragedy of the sinner. Indeed this, and not the triumph of the saint, constitutes the main theme of the drawing to the point that even the triumphant stares at the tragic end of the sinner, while the original story itself aims at blessing the victory of the good over the evil. Yet, what happens when the evil triumphs?
In the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, painted ten years before the former, the victory belongs to the evil. Here, pride takes the upper hand. One second after this moment, when the artist has frozen the scene for eternity, it is as if the murderer will cry out his triumph at the audience. It is a sad moment for the good; all gazes of terror, desperation, and compassion are over him, including that of the artist represented through a faint self-portrait standing behind the murder scene.
All Caravaggio’s work is an autobiography, a sinner’s depiction of the sinners.