Caravaggio Confessions - Humility kills pride

Added 2020-02-20 in by Kamil Kusztal

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 - 1610) is one of the most recognizable Italian flower of the history of painting, whose work fell on the times of mystical and undoubtedly mysterious (through what still fascinating) baroque. The depth and transcendence of his works were closely related to his violent life bathed in light and shadow. An example of such a painter's work is the painting called 'David with the head of Goliath' currently located in Rome at the Borghese Gallery. It is a unique summary closing the sad fate of the great artist. So is there a better moment of the year to bend over the last letter or even a will of such an outstanding figure than winter bathed in rain and mud?

   Communing with this portrait should start from a biographical context. As I have already mentioned, Caravaggio's life and behavior weren'tt the most exemplary and worth following. However, this is nothing special in the face of the panorama of everyday life of that period, especially when we think about actions of artists who are sensitive to the surrounding reality. He was protected by patrons for a long time, but one spring day Caravaggio probably committed one crime that questioned his future life and forced him to flee Rome.

   May 29, 1906, an Italian painter accidentally murdered Ranuccia Tomassoni. He was found guilty, so to keep his head, he quickly decided to escape from the Eternal City. The route of the exile led him among others to Naples, Sicily or Malta. During his wandering, he hid with the Collon family, stayed in the monastery of the Maltese Knights of St. John and was the victim of an assassination attempt , from which he successfully managed to survive. During this personal odyssey Caravaggio created one of the last paintings (around 1609), which shows David just after his victory over the Philistine giant. The work has been sent to Cardinal Scipion Borghes, hoping that the artist's repentance would give him pardon and a safe return to Rome. This long-awaited decision has seen the daylight, but the accused himself didn't reach the capital.

   Just as Caravaggio created enigmatic art, the circumstances of his death are based on the mystery. One version says that after many perturbations during a boat trip (during a stop he was thrown into prison, the boat sailed away, and he most likely bought himself out of custody) and an attempt to reach Rome on his own legs, the artist died of a completely unknown reason ( according to some scientists, the cause of death could have been sunstroke, syphilis or staphylococcus), near the destination of his last journey. Instead of the artist, only his painting arrived in the city - 'David with the head of Goliath'.

   Beginning the analysis of the work itself is the perfect moment for a significant correction. Earlier in describing the image I used the term 'portrait', but it's more appropriate in this case to say that Caravaggio's creation is a 'self-portrait' because the author put his likeness on it in a very thoughtful way. The procedure of artists immortalizing their image in paintings, of course, wasn't and isn't something new (even in the case of Caravaggio himself, who used this procedure in previous works). In this case, the Italian artist presented his face in the severed head of old Goliath. This fact, which personally gives me thrilling shivers, opens up a completely new way of interpretation, which is finding the truth about the metamorphosis that happened in the life of the outcast.

   Let us think about scene itself, which Caravaggio immortalized on canvas. It represents the moment of victory. We are aware of this because of the common knowledge of the biblical story. However, the longer we reflect the painted situation, the sooner we will feel some kind of dissonance. The artist in fact makes a very personal reinterpretation of this moment. Young David is not surrounded by a crowd chanting his name, we can't hear the sound of fanfare, fluttering banners or winning songs. The only sound that this picture would seem to make is the sound of silence.In this silence there is a lonely David. In his attitude and mimicry, we can't grasp the joy of his triumph. On the contrary. He is overwhelmed with compassion and reflection. He holds the head of old Caravaggio, whose dead face shows life destruction. In his other hand, David still holds the sword, decorated with the inscription: 'H-AS OS', which means the Latin proverb, 'Humilitas occidit superbiam' ("Humility kills pride"). It seems that a simple picture, devoid of numerous details, suddenly accuses us of an enormous amount of information. Of course, this is not a disadvantage because it allows us to feel the dense atmosphere of the immortalized moment.

   Meditating on the personal meaning of this work can lead to an interesting conclusion about the metamorphosis that took place at the end of the artist's life. If Caravaggio put his image in Goliath's head, then by painting David, he could also give him a new face, the face of young Caravaggio. A new, humble and contrite man kills an old man, so he erases from his life a sinner, destroyed by a rollicking lifestyle. This image can not be better described than as a kind of confession and perpetuation of distressing regret, but also as the hope that from the ashes of the old man the pure and full of vitality young man was born. However, the question remains as to what really caused Caravaggio's transformation. Was it real reflection and repentance, was it fear of the verdict over his head, or maybe another antic and a way of a baroque hooligan to avoid the consequences? We are unlikely to know this anymore. 

   'Humility kills pride' is one of the most beautiful proverbs which ends the tragic fate and mystical work of Caravaggio, while leaving a clue to future generations, and in particular for future generations of artists. Spending time by interpreting works of this Italian painter and discovering his fate at the same time can certainly be considered as a technique of meditating on human nature and its dynamism, which I wholeheartedly recommend, especially on quiet, light-shadowed winter evenings.