Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Italy 1610. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is on the run again… This time he is wanted for murder… So he does what he has always done, does what he does best, he tries to paint himself out of trouble… This is what he paints, “David with the Head of Goliath”. It’s a self-portrait, but why doesn’t Caravaggio cast himself as the hero David? Why does he paint himself as the villain of the piece,
the monster Goliath?

We like to think, don’t we, that the genius is the hero, that the good guy wins.
But this is Caravaggio, and the genius is the villain.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571[2]-1610)
David with the Head of Goliath from c. 1610 (Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy)


In the Catholic Church’s war for souls,
paintings were not art objects, they were the heavy artillery.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

First, draw old sculpture… Second, take yourself off to the old masters… What you’d get at the end of it all was the point of art, and idea of perfect form and ideal beauty… Oh ya? Caravaggio didn’t think so. Visions of Paradise? Who the hell knew about that? What he knew was right in front of his nose,
down here on earth, in the studio.
The here and now, that would be the point of his art.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Boy with a Basket of Fruit from c. 1593 (Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy)


The claustrophobia has a point, and it is not erotic. What he is doing is demolishing the safety barrier between the viewer and the painting. Caravaggio’s art crashes the safety barrier of the frame, it tears away the separation. It reaches you.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

The Musicians from c. 1595 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)


This was the painter that the Church was waiting for…
No one could touch Caravaggio for capturing the sheer weight of the Gospels.
His faith is carnal, the bodies in his masterpieces are trapped in flesh,
even  when they are the Son of God.
But wasn’t that the point of the Gospel?
Christ’s presence on Earth, not as a weightless angel, but in the flesh of man.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Deposition from the Cross from c. 1600-1604 (Musei Vaticani, Rome, Italy)


The Carmelite sisters who had commissioned the painting, gave it back.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Death of the Virgin from 1601 – 1605/1606 (Louvre, Paris)


It must have been a bitter rejection, and it marked a major turning point… His life was about to spiral into a series of disastrous encounters, that would culminate in an act of appalling bloodshed… Caravaggio has a blown-fuse shouting match with Ranuccio Tomassoni. It wasn’t good to rumble with Tomassoni, a local heavy, he was also a famous swordsman… a duel is arranged… [following the duel] Tomassoni is taken into his house where he makes his final confession and bleeds to death. Wanted for murder Caravaggio goes on the run… Once again, his network of patrons and admirers rallies around to keep him afloat. Throughout the summer of 1606 they help him hide out and in return sick and sober by what he’s done, Caravaggio makes paintings.

Paintings that help him on his way far beyond the jurisdiction of the Papal state, somewhere the police and bounty hunters won’t find him.


Here, in the city where cutting the odd throat is nothing to get worked up about, Caravaggio is a celebrity… The Neapolitans can’t get enough of him. Caravaggio is doing great work, and guess what? No fights.

So why does he suddenly leave and end up in Malta of all places?
But there was one thing that Malta, the Christian island in the Muslim Mediterranean could give him which Naples couldn’t: status, respect, a knighthood.
One of his patrons makes the right noises and introduces Caravaggio to the Holy Order of the Knights of St. John…Becoming a knight would mean, not only honour and respect, but also a chance to wipe the bloody slate of his past clean… On the 14th of July, 1608 the robe with the Maltese cross is put around the fugitive’s shoulders and he is officially proclaimed one of the greatest of painters living or dead.

In exchange for all of this, Caravaggio undertook a painting for the Knight’s Cathedral.

The “Beheading of St. John the Baptist” is the biggest thing Caravaggio had ever done. 17 feet long, filling the entire eastern wall of the oratory.
It’s movie screen sized.
He wanted the knights to feel it, not as a painting but as a living drama,
going on right in front of them…
It’s this ruthless honesty that makes this such a modern work. Art without any vision of consolation or redemption.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Beheading of St. John the Baptist from 1608
(Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta)


Barely a month after he is admitted to the Order of St. John, Caravaggio is imprisoned for assaulting a brother Knight… he manages to escape from his underground cell… He returns to the safety of Naples, but it is here his enemies finally catch up to him… he is left for dead. But he doesn’t die… news reaches him from Rome. The Pope’s nephew… is arranging a pardon. So Caravaggio sets about repaying him the only was he can.

It’s a self-portrait, unlike any painted before (David with the Head of Goliath)…
Now look at Caravaggio, a decapitated head. He’s Goliath, a bloody grotesque, a monster… On [David’s] sword is inscribed “Humilitas Occidit Superbiam” – humility conquers pride – a battle that has been fought out inside Caravaggio’s head between the two sides of the painter portrayed here. There’s the devout, courageous David Caravaggio
and then there’s the criminal sinner Goliath Caravaggio.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571[2]-1610)
David with the Head of Goliath from c. 1610 (Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy)


For me the power of his art is the power of Truth, not least about ourselves.
For if we are ever to have a chance of redemption it must begin with an act of recognition that in all of us the Goliath competes with the David.

Simon Schama (The Power of Art, BBC)





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