The Sickness Unto Death Pt. II: David with the Head of Goliath

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The Sickness Unto Death 
A Musically Guided Exploration of Artist's Struggle with Mortality
Curated by Aaron Dupuis


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609

"You tried so hard to make people remember you for something
you were not,

And if they so remember you then something else will certainly
get forgotten" 
"The Sickness Unto Death" Typhoon 


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a man all too fond of going against the grain. Drunken brawls and late night prowls through the streets of Rome were his primary pasttimes before (and during) his rise to fame. It was this rebellious past that allowed him to tell the stories of the gospels as never before: through the eyes and experiences of sinners. It also led, however, to his ultimate downfall. In the summer of 1606 Caravaggio challenged Ranuccio Tomassoni to a duel in the streets of Rome, less than a year since an attempted homicide and a libel suit. Caravaggio, who had grown more and more violent since his rise to fame, won the duel and took Tomassoni's life, a decision which would change Caravaggio's forever.

For years Caravaggio had been creating works for the Catholic Church in order to reach the worst of the sinners of Rome. His down-to-earth depictions of the Saints, Disciples, and Christ promise that salvation was waiting for all people,  no matter how wretched the life, no matter how wicked the sin. "Gamblers, prostitutes, drunks, beggars: It matters not what you were," his works say, "Because now you are saved." And yet, with Tomassoni's blood on his hands and a price on his head, Caravaggio began to fear that he may not receive the same treatment. 

Wracked with guilt, but hopeful for a way out, Caravaggio fled to Naples and then Malta, painting more scenes from the gospel. Scenes of redemption. Scenes of forgiveness. It was in Malta that Caravaggio first sought to clear his name by joining the Order of St. John in return for the painting, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Shortly thereafter, he assaulted one of his fellow knights, and was thrown back in prison, his life once again in jeopardy. Somehow, he escaped from the jail and made his way back to Naples where he caught word that the pope's nephew, Scipione Borghese, was willing to pardon him. In order to save his life and repay Borghese, Caravaggio painted David with the Head of Goliath.

The work is a self-portrait unlike any other. Caravaggio paints himself as Goliath, the wicked giant that is struck down with a slingshot. Mouth agape, right eye filled with blood and lolling to the side, the stump of his neck dripping with blood and hanging gore, Caravaggio is truly monstrous. He has become a villain, not only in the context of his life, but in the context of Catholic belief. The man who promised sinners a sure way out is beyond redemption. Except, that he isn't. At least, not on earth. By killing himself metaphorically, Caravaggio hopes to save himself in the real world. The state had asked for his head in a basket, and he was giving it to them on canvas instead. 

The intention is sound, but the implications are horrific. It is, in effect, a suicide of the soul in exchange for the safety of the vessel, and suicide - like murder - is a mortal sin. And this must have been what Caravaggio feared, for if he so believed in the saving grace of Christ, why then his fear of death? Perhaps a deep-rooted dread that he might be swallowed whole by the jaws of non-existence, of the pitch darkness that surrounds the characters of his works, the utter blackness that finally closed over him as he struggled through the swamps of Italy, hoping to catch up with his ticket out. 

You see, things didn't quite go as planned. On his way home to Rome, he was arrested by a guard who hadn't been informed of his pardon. By the time he got out of jail, his ship had left without him, taking his works with it. Lost, alone, and hopeless he chased after the boat by way of land, and collapsed on a beach in a fever. He died before he could receive his pardon, having killed himself on canvas for naught. 


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