A Psychoanalytic Analysis of Caravaggio’s David and Goliath

Caravaggio - David with the Head of Goliath In “Caravaggio Four Centuries Later: Psychoanalytic Portraits of Ambivalence and Ambiguity” (Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 61 no. 2 (2013): 311-332), Nathan M. Szajnberg offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of aspects of Caravaggio’s work.

Of Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath” (1609-10), Szajnberg writes:

We can compare this to Bernini’s David sculpture: victorious, muscular, and fiercely, angrily expressive – a look of fiero – he swipes his blade through. But Caravaggio, now in his early forties, running from justice for years, portrays something more complex. Yes, it is his face on the severed skull of Goliath. Even in death, Caravaggio/Goliath’s upper face shows “corrugator action,” – which Darwin called the muscle of difficulty – seen also in pain, anger, fear, and sadness. His lower face shows his mouth agape.

We can treat this picture like a dream in which the artist (or the dreamer) can parcel himself into several characters, as Freud (1900) and Erikson (1954) have taught us. Then, to the degree that this David is Caravaggio’s David, the young shepherd’s face shows no fiero, no anger, no joy: he looks, head tilted, slightly downward to his left, toward the dangling head held by his almost soft grasp. He shows remarkable calm, but with a tone of sadness or remorse or pity in the brows of the victor’s face. That is, Caravaggio in his penultimate work somberly metes out justice (David) and is met with justice (Goliath).

… Caravaggio transgressed contemporary norms to expand the range of emotions that could be represented and to show the interplay of emotions in intense moments of human experience. He openly portrayed what psychoanalysts consider the fuller range of inner reality, including our ambivalences, thereby revealing our inner lives on the surface of the canvas. (324-25)

Bernini - David

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