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Caravaggio's David and Goliath

David and Goliath

Oil on canvas, 1599, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)

David with the Head of Goliath

Oil on wood, 1607, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)

David with the Head of Goliath

Oil on canvas, 1610, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)

The story of David and Goliath is yet another biblical narrative which I find endlessly intriguing, not to mention philosophically problematic. To religious people, it is a parable of the power of faith, of the sacred overcoming the profane. It has always been held up as definitive evidence of “God’s chosen people.” The contemporary polemicist Malcolm Gladwell brilliantly cites the incident as a classic secular example of the triumph of the underdog overcoming considerable odds, the weak vanquishing the strong, the small entity standing up to the mighty conglomerate, only to then ingeniously invert the entire concept to expose how, in fact, it was David all along who might have had the strategic upper hand from the very outset of the famous contest.

Gladwell argues that the ballistic advantage of David’s slingshot was considerably greater than Goliath’s wieldy sword; David, after all, was a shepherd boy skilled in using a sling to ward off predators from his flock: by his age he would have been an ace shot. He probably could have killed a wolf or a mountain lion stone dead (excuse the pun) at fifty feet. Gladwell also suggests there was some deception on David’s part because the traditional agreement to the duel would have pitted swordsman against swordsman in hand-to-hand combat, a true test of physical representative strength, so it was dishonourable of Saul to allow David to saunter off down the hill armed with a sling when Goliath was fully expecting to clash with a fellow swordsman and fighter of similar stature. It marks the modern equivalent of pitting a man with a revolver against someone with a club of iron: the gun will always prevail.

Gladwell has further theories about Goliath’s failing eyesight: apparently a semantic analysis of the historical texts reveal ambiguities over his state of health. It is impossible to prove this, but at the very least he would have been confounded by what he encountered. He would have been wrong-footed, befuddled, aghast. Also, he would have been insulted by the underhand tactics of his foe: was a man of his military stature expected to fight a scrawny teenage boy? What about his own sense of integrity? Would he have thought it fair to slaughter a shepherd boy rather than try to slay an enemy of similar age, size and rank? I have personally always felt rather sorry for poor old Goliath. Here was a man, in all honesty probably more brawn than brain, who put to use his vast physical attributes doing the one job he was naturally good at: signing up for the army. He was most likely an honest sort of fellow, trying to earn a decent living to support his family, fighting for a cause he was born to believe in and defend. When the day of the battle came, he deserved better than to be taken off guard by some upstart little twerp skipping down a hill in sandals and a tunic twirling a slingshot.

The fact that we have always regarded David’s feat as a byword for the power of faith is frankly because, as the old adage goes, the victors always get to write their own history. The “righteous” David conquering the “philistine” Goliath is a classic example of the complications which arise from narrative perspective: the author of the tale was, of course, an ardent supporter and promotor of – surprise, surprise – the young shepherd hero himself. Fundamentally, the story lacks historical objectivity. We hear nothing of the Philistine’s point of view. We are given nothing biographical on which to judge the character of Goliath except his enemy’s own intentional denigration. In a story which intentionally promotes heroism, the bigger and “badder” the villain is portrayed, the more elevated the hero emerges; that is a classic trope of storytelling which merely amounts to a modern-day character assassination. In any regard, the Book of Samuel (2:21:19) lists Elhanan as the slayer of Goliath and not David, in which case the saga smacks of an antique PR stunt sleazily spun to repurpose the political implications of the story. While in The Illiad, Homer composed a strikingly similar story where the young Nestor fights and conquers the giant Ereuthalion: man to man combat, after all, was a stylistic feature particular to Homeric literature.

There are also dynastic considerations: King David, as he was to become, like any ruler of a fragile and precarious ancient kingdom riven with political machinations and external existential threats, needed to establish and maintain legitimacy. What better way than to pivot your credentials on a legacy of childhood heroism? Nowadays one might call that “propaganda.” It is nevertheless interesting that, in accordance with post-colonial literary theory, not to mention the current motivations for radical revisionist history, this apocryphal tale has not been more closely dismantled or at the very least granted a sense of objective balance. It would be fascinating to hear the Philistine’s account, considering that the battle was essentially over the critically fertile valley of Elah and therefore not really a religious fight at all, but primarily one over food security.

To the art then. The subject has always been a popular one with artists. Most treatments have, naturally, tended to follow the conventional line and exalted the heroism of David. He is seen standing victorious over the slain body of Goliath, or, even better, with a sense of finalism to the matter as he grasps Goliath’s severed head in his hand or (apparently to further underscore the unequal physical match of the two foes) rests its cumbersome dead weight on a ledge as his own lithe limbs lack the strength to hold it aloft. Some artists seem to have been slightly coyer in their own belief in the story’s spiritual prescience and may have hidden in plain sight their own reservations. Take Michelangelo’s iconic statue of David, for example. A colossal three-metre-tall naked marble masterpiece showcasing the physical peak perfection of the male form could hardly be said to emphasise David’s alleged modesty or slender youth. Instead, we sense in David’s perfectly sculptured physique the sly telling cynicism of the artist: in other words, a hint that this man is not all we have been told he is. Rather, he has emerged from solid stone as the full and complete man he probably was when he appropriated the tale for the benefit of his legacy: a powerful political operator. His sheer towering height, for one, casts him as the lone “giant” of the narrative. The pent-up energy packed into his torso and limbs, all compact marbled power, is staggering: this is no vulnerable under-dog.

David and Goliath (1599) Prado, Madrid

Caravaggio, too, seems to have the used the source material to cast dispersions on the validity of the tale. Of course no other artist embodied such intense and closely wrought physical observation, nor so vividly expressed the crux of conflict so astutely. His perfection of tenebrism transfixed his subjects in the bright shafts of light which, like the use of an interrogator’s piercingly intrusive bulb, seem to draw from the dark shadows sudden moments of blinding truth and realisation. The 1599 painting, David and Goliath, appears to intentionally strip the scene of the triumphalism it so wantonly demands. Any suggestion of David boasting about his conquest is absent, as are the dichotomous responses of the witnessing armies; the surprise jubilation of the Israelites or the numb horror of the Philistines. Even the melodrama of Goliath’s death-face has been muted to display almost a sense of curious puzzlement in the moment before he was felled. David’s face is also obscured in the shadow, holding our tension by depriving us of denouement, while the focus of light falls instead on his limbs and flank, emphasising his suppleness as he kneels almost casually on Goliath’s back and wide shoulders. Of all three of Caravaggio’s treatments of the subject, this first painting captures most effectively the fluent, economical actions of a shepherd; the scene rendered almost pastoral, as if David is pragmatically handling one of his sheep. It is more a personal and private moment between boy and rogue beast in a lone field, than between champion and challenger in front of the spectacle of raving armies.

David with the Head of Goliath (1607) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The 1607 painting, David with the Head of Goliath, is considerably more provocative. In contrast, we do now see the triumphalism of the conquest. David strides forward grasping the aghast head of his foe by his mop of thick hair in a manner which almost seems discourteous. He is of course on his way to present Goliath’s severed head to King Saul, an event which will denote Saul’s decline from power while marking David’s ascension. Indeed, here is a depiction of that ecstatic moment in youth when a boy becomes a man, that taut thrill of a heroic deed still coursing through his veins, pumping his blood with strident excitement. Fear has gone, replaced by courage. David’s forward thrust gaze carries a tinge of knowing arrogance about it, as if he is aware that he holds the tangible proof of his sudden elevation to greatness. The sword he brandishes over his shoulder contains a kind of swagger about it, the poise redolent of the graceless affectation of a disregarding youth suddenly thrust way above his station: it is both a spoil of war but also signifies a direct challenge to Saul’s authority. Indeed, we see the presentation of Goliath’s head from Saul’s perspective: what must he be privately thinking?

David with the Head of Goliath (1610) Galleria Borghese, Rome

The 1610 version of David with the Head of Goliath, meanwhile is a regarded as one of Caravaggio’s finest masterpieces. Here David is seen as much more pensive and contemplative of his deed. His eyes are not cast away from Goliath and towards the reception of Saul as in the 1607 version, but instead they gaze down at his victim with a curious sense of troubled compassion and pity. He is perturbed, as if aware of a loss of innocence; the protector of sheep has become a merciless slayer of men. The grotesque rendering of Goliath’s severed head pouring blood cements the visual impact of the event’s barbarity: it is one thing to kill, another to savagely decapitate for the sake of trophy-ism. There is something animalistic and primal in what has transpired which David appears to retrospectively now abhor. His sword bears the inscription H-AS OS which Caravaggio scholar Catherine Puglisi suggests is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam (“humility kills pride”). But there is a problem: David went to face Goliath with no sword and used Goliath’s own sword to behead him. Therefore, the bearer of the inscription is not in fact David, but Goliath himself. What is Caravaggio suggesting about Goliath’s character? There is something unifying here between the two foes. The pensiveness David shows in the aftermath of his deed creates a psychological bond between himself and the “giant”, as if there is more mutual respect rather than the bitter enmity between the two that religious teachings always ascribe. Goliath is instead imbued with a sense of implied nobility and dignity.

The ambiguity over Goliath’s status is further enhanced when we consider that his head is in fact a self-portrait of Caravaggio himself, while the model for David has been theorised as either Cecco del Caravaggio (his model, assistant and lover, “Little Caravaggio”) or else a younger version of Caravaggio himself, thus rendering the painting a double self-portrait. If the former, then the painting takes on a bewildering sexual emphasis, especially, as Puglisi has suggested, David’s sword projects upwards suggestively from his groin area while mirroring in parallel a diagonal link of “the protagonist’s gaze to his victim.” This creates a subliminal erotic subtext to the painting’s complex emotional register. If the painting is a double self-portrait, Puglisi goes on, then it shows the adult self being flayed by his own younger self. In other words, the seeds sown by a wild and foolhardy youth have come back to cause the older self’s premature demise. In which case, we can view the painting as an allegory of the dangers of misspent youth. As this painting was completed in the last year of Caravaggio’s life, when he was caught in significant personal turmoil and effectively on the run for murder, it is not impossible to believe his thoughts had by now become considerably introspective.


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