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Watching death at work

Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath.

Is it compassion, or sorrow, or repulsion we see in the heavy glance that brave David casts on the severed head of Goliath in Caravaggio's painting David with the Head of Goliath (1610), on show in the exhibition "Caravaggio Bacon" at the Borghese Gallery in Rome? This is one of the last paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian master who will be celebrated across the world in 2010, 400 years after his death.

Caravaggio reads the biblical episode in which the young hero triumphs over Goliath, and thereby saves Israel from the Philistines, through the lens of his own travails. The artist, who was notorious for his fiery temper, murdered a man while playing a game in Rome and was forced to flee south to avoid the death sentence placed upon him by the Pope. From that moment on, Caravaggio lived on the run, an existence that came to an end only with his abrupt death, in mysterious circumstances, on the way back to Rome, where he was to receive at last a pardon from Paolo V. We see in the painting, in the head of a desperate sinner gripped by the firm hand of the executioner, the face of the agonised painter himself.

Most likely created to accompany the artist's plea for a papal pardon, this canvas is almost a moving statement of repentance, as well as a poignant farewell. Caravaggio identifies himself with Goliath, evil and darkness, while the near-naked David, a prefiguration of Christ, represents grace, light and the justice to which the painter is preparing to submit. It can also be read as a double portrait, in which the artist's conscience contemplates with pity its dark counterpart. The legend "Humilitas Occidit Superbiam" on David's gleaming sword gives the picture an explicit symbolic and moral significance.

A similarly profound sense of death and despair suffuses many of Caravaggio's late works -- The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, for instance, or the terrifying Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Indeed, the artist was deeply familiar with death throughout his life: from his direct experience of the plague in Milan, through the early loss of his parents, to the public executions he would have witnessed (the philosopher Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned at the stake in 1600).

This acquaintance with death is what links Caravaggio's work most closely with the twisting and tortured human forms in the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose centenary fell in 2009. It was a good idea of the curators of the Roman exhibition to place these two artists in juxtaposition.

The open mouth of Caravaggio's dead Goliath is all the more sinister and dramatic when seen alongside Bacon's Head VI (1949), where a ghostly shape emerges from the untreated canvas. Standing in front of Caravaggio's Goliath, it is disquieting to recall one of Bacon's favourite quotations, the words of Jean Cocteau, who wrote: "Each day in the mirror I watch death at work."