One of the touchstone images on my writing desk is a magnet of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath.
I actually bumped into this painting in Rome. What I loved about our encounter was that I didn’t recognize the painting from any books, but when I walked into the room, it took my breath away. I gravitated toward it, blind to everything else.
It’s a painting you need to see in person to understand how powerful it is. It’s dramatic and emotionally gripping. Incredible use of light and darkness.
In fact, notice what a great percentage of this painting is of the darkness itself. The subject isn’t merely the swordsman and the head. It’s the darkness in which they exist.
Turns out that the head that David is holding–is Caravaggio’s. It’s the painter’s own head he’s painted, decapitated, held by its hair.
That thought riveted me. I stood in front of it forever.
You could decide: whatever, it’s ego. Caravaggio claiming the position of giant among his peers, suggesting they all want his head because no other way do they become the heroes of society (and their own minds). Or maybe it’s grief at his trajectory, or maybe it’s a cry for mercy. Or maybe it’s humanizing the ones we destroy. Or humanizing the pasts we must move away from.
So many interpretations could be valid.
For me what rooted me, and what made me keep him on my desk these past years, is the notion of the artist destroying herself for and in her own work.
Rendered honestly, art is a true fragment of the painter, or of the writer. It has something so powerfully theirs that their life is what bleeds into it and sets it ablaze, and hooks it into the open hearts of those who encounter it.
If you protect yourself, you cut yourself off from your work. You rob it of life and any point in being at all.