(b. 1563, Pisa, d. 1639, London)

David Contemplating the Head of Goliath

c. 1610
Oil on canvas, 173 x 142 cm
Galleria Spada, Rome

Orazio Gentileschi's brooding image of David contemplating the head of Goliath reflects a new type of meditative image introduced at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Caravaggio. Traditionally David was shown either as an uncompromised biblical hero slaying Goliath or as a triumphant youth displaying the giant's decapitated head. In Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath (Galleria Borghese, Rome), which was likely to have been sent from Naples around 1609 as a gift for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the adolescent hero gazes tenderly at his victim's head, creating a strong, almost erotic, bond. Orazio's David does not interact with Goliath's head, rather he stands beside it lost in a moment of deep introspection, evoking a pensive atmosphere similar to the mood generated in Caravaggio's St John the Baptist. Like the St John, David's body is pushed towards the picture plane and set off against a background of dense, dark foliage. This verdant background is strikingly different from the one in Orazio's small copper version (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), in which David is framed by a rocky cliff. The difference has led some critics to suggest that Agostino Tassi was responsible for the landscape in the Spada picture, but there is no conclusive proof to substantiate this.

Unlike the Berlin copper, where David is seen full-length, in the Spada version his body is cropped just below the knee and Goliath's head is turned upwards towards the viewer. It has been suggested that the Spada canvas was cut down at the bottom. However, technical evidence shows that instead it was extended on all four sides. Thus the picture would have focused more directly on the contemplative and melancholic David and the head of Goliath would have appeared to rest on the edge of the frame. A copy of the Berlin composition (Quadreria Arcivescovile, Milan) was paired with a version of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes , but there is no evidence to indicate that two pictures of such contrasting moods were originally conceived as pendants.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 11 minutes):
Johann Kuhnau: The Fight between David and Goliath (No. 1 of the 6 Stories from the Bible illustrated in music)