Caravaggio: A New Force in European Art

Natalya Apchinskaya

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

The work of the great Italian artist Caravaggio, who lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, was shown for the first time in Russia, with an exhibition of 11 paintings at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts that opened at the end of 2011; it included some of his most celebrated works central to his heritage.

At the end of the 16th century, the High Renaissance in Italy gave way to Mannerism, in many ways refined but also depleted in comparison to what had come before (it did give rise to the great art of El Greco, not in Italy but in Spain), and to the so-called Bolognese School of painting, traditionalist and therefore looking into the past, not the future. However, it was then that there emerged an artist of enormous talent and daring, with a novel creative vision — an artist who was able to lay a new path for all European art to follow.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was named after the Archangel Michael, as he was born on Saint Michael's feast day (according to current research, at the end of 1570 or in 1571), and was nicknamed "Caravaggio" after the place where he was born. To quote a somewhat theatrical statement by Pietro Bellori, an art historian who lived in the 17th century and wrote prolifically about Caravaggio, the artist "by virtue of being born there, doubled the fame of Caravaggio, a noble province in Lombardy"1. The son of an architect (or a chief stone-mason), in 1584 the young Michele began studying painting at the Milan studio of the mannerist Simone Peterzano, which he attended for four years. At the end of the 1580s and beginning of 1590s, he traveled to Rome, which at the time was reclaiming its place as the centre of the spiritual and cultural life of Italy. Catholicism was celebrating its victory over the Reformation. Pope Sixtus V, striving to regain Rome's status as the capital of the world, supported this transformation of the Eternal City, which was flooded with talented masters of the arts, mostly architects and painters. One of those painters was Cesari d'Arpino, who came from Naples and whose studio Caravaggio attended for a time, perfecting his skill at painting flowers and fruit. He was living in abject poverty, and ended up in a hospital for the poor, but never ceased to work hard and soon became popular among the art connoisseurs of Rome. Cardinal Del Monte, an enlightened philanthropist and art collector, became his primary patron.

Art connoisseurs, both in Italy and abroad, would soon start to appreciate the young artist's craftsmanship, his powerful images, the beauty of his luminous colours, the intense, sculpted forms, his masterful use of chiaroscuro, and as Bellori put it, his ability to convey the "essence of things". While critics did not fail to see the pioneering aesthetics of the young master from Lombardy, they were not generally that enthusiastic about it. Bellori also remarked disapprovingly that "when he [Caravaggio] started painting, he was following his talent, not the examples of beautiful marble creations of the ancients or the glorious paintings of Rafael; he almost despised them and regarded nature alone as the object of his art."2 Vincenzo Carducho, a Florentine artist who worked at the Spanish court, took an even more uncompromising approach: in his rhetorical outbursts, he called Caravaggio a "monster of genius", and even "the Antichrist."

"Bacchus", one of the best known early paintings by Caravaggio, reveals the young artist's connection to tradition, as well as his innovation. We see the imposing ancient god of wine and harvest, crowned with a wreath of grapevines and wearing a shining white toga, who is also a lively, muscular Italian youth, his body type a far cry from the ancient canons of beauty, and his face almost feminine. With little depth in the composition, his figure appears prominently against the darkness of the background, in a way previously unheard-of; the fruit on the plate, the carafe and the goblet with wine represent the world of objects in all the variety of textures and tactile reality. The painting is meant to bring this world closer to the viewer by becoming a mirror which reflects life. The artists could have used the words of Shakespeare's Hamlet to describe art's goal: "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature". It was not by accident that the artist, just as he did in a number of other paintings of that period, used the "mirror technique", where what is "right" appears to be "left" — Bacchus is holding the goblet not in his right but in his left hand.

Another of the earlier paintings by Caravaggio shown at the Pushkin Museum exhibition was "A Boy with a Basket of Fruit", in which a dreamy and languid young man is holding a basket of beautifully rendered fruit symbolizing the fertile power of youth.

Other canvases, which may be considered to represent the beginning of genre painting in the Early Modern period, play out slightly "theatrical" scenes of everyday life. "The Lute Player" (1594) (for a long time the painting was called "A Girl with a Lute") is one such, housed at the Hermitage. According to art experts, the prototype of the lute player in this canvas was one of the boys who dressed up as young girls for theatre and musical shows at the palace of Cardinal Del Monte. Despite a certain "dryness" of technique, the painting mesmerizes the viewer with the luminous human form, so full of life, against the surrounding darkness, and the almost deceptive reality of the depicted objects. However, the painting, like all the works mentioned above, is not a replica of nature but a considered composition with a definite symbolic meaning. The young man is playing the lute and probably singing a love song, a madrigal; the flowers and the fruit refer to other senses, complimenting the auditory, and the broken violin string along with crinkled music sheets speak of the passing nature of earthly delights.

The subject of the canvas, depicting a variety of fresh fruit and greenery next to dry branches and faded leaves, is the inevitable decline of any blossoming life. In this still-life, quite possibly the first in the history of European art, the basket with fruit (a lot like the one the young man is holding in the painting at the exhibition) looks like it is teetering at the lower edge of the canvas, as if emerging from its margins — a technique Caravaggio used in his other works. However, the artist's aim is not to create a deceptive illusion of reality, but rather to show its true existence.

This existential reality, inner significance and monumental quality of everything that the master from Lombardy painted was at the end of the day rooted in his deep religious faith, his belief in the divine origin of everyday things — as if Christ's blessing hand was extended over them, as in the two versions he painted of his "The Supper at Emmaus". In the earlier of those two compositions, the glaring light falls on the characters, their gestures either noble and reserved, or sweeping and wide. In the second one, included in the exhibition at the Pushkin Museum, the movement is minimal, and the accent is on the characters' psychological state and the spiritual aspect of the story from the Gospel.

It is not surprising that from the very start of his career the artist painted religious themes together with secular ones; one example is his large-scale canvas "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" (1590s). Mary, tired, is asleep with her head leaning over the infant Jesus in her arms; an angel is playing the violin, and Joseph is holding the music sheet for him — we can see the face of the donkey between their heads. Barely covered with a cloth, the serene angel looks quite like a real human being. Yet we witness a truly miraculous event — we see the wings at the angel's back, but more importantly, Joseph's steady, intense gaze directed at the angel — and the animal's face, full of attention. This painting was the first to reveal the essence of Caravaggio's new approach to religious art, stripping away the mythology behind the religious subject and shifting the focus from the supernatural event to how a deeply spiritual person (as well as others of God's creatures) experiences it.

At the very end of the 16th century Caravaggio received a commission from the heirs to the estate of Cardinal Matteo Contarelli to create a series of paintings for a chapel at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi ("Saint Louis of the French") in Rome. From that moment on and for the rest of his life, the artist (while he continued to paint smaller pieces for private clients) would devote his formidable energy to painting for the Church; this would be the time when his gift as one of the great masters of monumental religious art would unfold in its entirety.

Contarelli's family chapel was dedicated to his heavenly patron, Matthew the Evangelist. According to the plan suggested by the Cardinal himself, the paintings on the side walls were to depict the calling of the apostle and his martyrdom, and the painting above the altar — Saint Matthew and the angel.

The most famous of the canvases Caravaggio painted for the chapel — and maybe his masterpiece — was the large-scale depiction of the scene, as it was recorded in a document of that time, of "Our Saviour Jesus Christ calling St. Matthew from the Customs House and Choosing Him as One of His Apostles"(1600-1601). Caravaggio interpreted the suggested subject both realistically and symbolically. While in the Middle Ages art portrayed empirical reality as mystical, and the artists of the Renaissance elevated it with heroic, mythical and poetic overtones, the paintings of the 17th-century master showed life "as it is", which did not diminish the religious feeling permeating the image.

The "customs house" is indicated by just a few details — an inkpot on the desk, a coin purse, a few scattered coins. The artist's focus is entirely on the people in the room — Jesus entering with the Apostle Peter, and the tax-collectors, the "publicans" of the New Testament. The old, and occasionally even contemporary critical works on Caravaggio's art sometimes refer to them as society's pariahs. In reality, the artist shows them as quite respectable and mostly well-dressed townsfolk, whose reaction to seeing Jesus is central to their role in the painting. The old man and the youth on the very far left from him are completely absorbed in counting the money that has been collected. Two young men closer to the entrance are enthralled with what they see. In the centre of the group at the table is the future Apostle and Evangelist, who, unlike his companions, is not a witness but a participant in the events. It is to Matthew that Jesus is pointing with his commanding gesture; he answers with a question, but the heavenly glow is already lightening his face.

Clearly, Caravaggio was familiar with the fresco which his namesake had painted at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where God is depicted with his hand outstretched to Adam. However, another great work of art had more connection to his painting — the famous fresco "The Tribute Money" by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, created more than 100 years before Michelangelo. (Caravaggio's biographers think that he may have seen the fresco during his first trip to Rome.) The fresco shows Jesus instructing Peter to catch a fish and take a coin (a "stater") from its mouth to pay the tribute money with it; the apostle mimics his teacher's commanding gesture. Unlike Masaccio's dignified and timeless characters, Caravaggio paints the simple tax collectors, Matthew and Peter, and even Christ as flesh and blood people, his own contemporaries. (Thus, the artist's friend, the well-known Roman architect Onorio Longhi, was the model for Saint Matthew.) At the same time, Christ possesses superior spiritual power which helps him to call the chosen, and to guide them to a reality that is greater than everyday life — this is the source of the truly indomitable energy we see in his face and gesture.

There is another character in this painting of the Lombardian artist — the light, which, like everything else, is both realistic and symbolic. It flows in a broad beam from an unknown source above the heads of the people entering the room as it is dimly reflected in the side window; it is of both physical and spiritual nature. It breathes life into the figures in the painting, making them glow magically in the darkness, and brings out the bright colours of their clothes; most importantly, it lightens up their faces and lays bare all the nuances of their feelings. "The Calling of St. Matthew" makes the nature of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro especially clear — the sharp contrast of light and dark which does not only serve to create three-dimensional, but also psychological space, as it embodies the struggle of good and evil.

Another large-scale painting at the Contarelli Chapel was dedicated to the tragic end of St. Matthew's earthly life (1602), its composition full of penetrating dynamism. The old Apostle has fallen on his back on the steps of the altar, while an executioner holding a sword leans over him. The witnesses are fleeing in fear, unable to avert their eyes. It looks like the altar boy is shaken the most — his scream seems to be coming from the depths of his soul. The person in the farthest corner of the painting looks compassionate and attentive — it is the artist's self-portrait, whose imagination is the source of everything we see in the painting.

The artist's craftsmanship is astonishing: the numerous figures in this composition are full of energy and expressiveness, and ultimately form a harmonious union; it is even more amazing because Caravag-gio did not paint any studies, but made changes to the canvas as he worked on it.

The third painting Caravaggio created for the Contarelli Chapel was quite different but no less remarkable. It shows St. Matthew as he is writing his Gospel, dictated by the angel standing next to him. The Apostle looks like a commoner with the head of Socrates; it is clear how hard it is for him to write. None of this matters, however, because the angel is literally guiding his hand. The heavenly messenger is distinctive with a feminine beauty and patient diligence. It is not a moment of "teaching" that we are witnessing, but a mysterious event, as evidenced by the Apostle's expression, a mixture of reverence, shock, incredulity and joy.

The clergy of the Church of San Luigi did not find the painting "either pious or suitable", and the artist had to urgently paint a new version of the composition, more proper, more traditional and naturally, reserved and formal. The fate of the first version, one of Caravaggio's masterpieces, was tragic: it was lost in a fire in the 1940s during the bombing of Berlin.

In 1602-1604 Caravaggio painted two large canvases for the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. His works were to be incorporated into the ensemble of frescos by one of Annibale Car-racci's students (the most celebrated representative of the Bolognese School and Caravaggio's main antagonist in Roman art of that time.)

In these paintings, the artist again turns to the key subjects of his life's work — to Gospel themes.

Among them was "The Conversion of Saul", one of the larger paintings on display at the Moscow exhibition. The future Apostle Paul hears the voice of Christ and is struck blind by a ray of light coming from heaven; he is depicted fallen from his horse, with an old servant holding on to the reins. The former persecutor of Christians has to be completely reborn, and so he is cast down to the ground, and the upper part of the painting is taken up by the figure of the horse. It looks like the horse itself, as it is carefully lifting its leg over the fallen man, is trying to listen in, along with the servant, on the mysterious happening. A characteristic feature of many of Caravaggio's paintings, the hero's astonishing experience is revealed though the wide gesture of his arms, which simultaneously indicates the depth of the space. Also typically, the Apostle's eyes are closed, his face impenetrable and distant — his encounter with God is happening deep within his soul, hidden from the eyes of the uninitiated.

The Moscow exhibition also included another of Caravaggio's monumental canvases, the altarpiece he painted for the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. A combination of two iconographic images — "The Lamentation of Christ" and "The Entombment of Christ" — the altarpiece is like an enormous painted requiem. The figures are positioned on a slab of stone which hangs over the darkness of the grave and is "drawn" towards the viewer. John and Nicodemus are lowering Christ's lifeless body to the ground, while the three Maries behind them mourn his death. The artist shows us all the degrees of human feelings, from pathos to stark suffering. It is particularly impressive how the artist portrays Nicodemus (it was said that a certain porter was the model for this image.) As he holds Christ's body, he is bent uncomfortably, with his face to the viewer. The human suffering we see in this rough face that seems exposed could only be compared to some of Rembrandt's images. The downward movement, towards the grave, of most of the figures in the composition is balanced by the upward motion of the figure of Mary of Cleophas, and the entire composition evokes the tempo of a Bach choral. It is not by accident that a contemporary author of a book about Rembrandt writes that "Caravaggio was roaring with the organ pipes of the Counter-Reformation churches"3.

The painting, which was rejected by the clergy for the same reasons as "Saint Matthew and the Angel", quickly became famous both in Italy and beyond its borders. In the 17th century, Rubens painted a copy, followed later by Fragonard, Geri-cault and Cezanne.

A few years later, the artist would paint his sublime and tragic "Death of the Virgin" for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere.

Generally Caravaggio's art was full of tragic tones, but he occasionally created paintings which were overflowing with joy, among them "John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)" (1602) and "Love Triumphant" (circa 1603).

"John the Baptist", which was exhibited at the Pushkin Museum, depicts a naked young man with a smiling face, his body illuminated by the golden sun, his arm around the ram's neck; the ram's face is trusting and human-like — it personifies Christ's future sacrifice. In "Love Triumphant", we see the ancient god of love who appears as a charming Italian boy who is trampling on the symbols of civilization: a sceptre, a laurel branch, a book, musical instruments, a compass, and an alidade. His happy, teasing face, lit by an irresistibly sweet smile, tells us that everything is just a game, and that one does not need to be deeply concerned for the fate of virtue, art, and science.

However, the artist's destructive tendencies were not just harmless games when they manifested themselves in his everyday life outside his studio. Giorgio Bonsanti, a contemporary art historian, writes in his book about Caravaggio: "The years when he was becoming more and more established as an artist were also marked by long interruptions in his work due to his violent temper and quarrelsome personality. Such were the extreme expressions of his nature, which were not negative at their core, but were rather peculiar manifestations of his non-conformism. Lacking self-control, he went to extremes in his desire to assert himself; having barely made some money, he would stroll around town magnificently dressed and with a page carrying his sword, ready to suspect insults and animosity where there was likely none. Starting from 1600, quarrels and bloody fights with Car-avaggio as a participant happened with impressive regularity, and their consequences were getting worse; in 1606, one of his fights ended in murder."4

After a ball game during which Car-avaggio was injured and inflicted a deadly injury on his opponent, he fled Rome. This marked the beginning of his vagabond years: Florence, Modena, Genoa, Naples, Malta, Sicily, and back to Naples... In the summer of 1610 he finally received permission to return to Rome. He took the sea route there, and was imprisoned on a false accusation; when he was finally freed, he found out that the felucca with his belongings had disappeared. According to one document, "enraged, he frantically ran around the coast under blistering sun in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the little boat with his effects. He finally found shelter and took to bed with a fever. Here [in Porto Ercole — N.A.], without any help, he passed away after a few days. He died as absurdly as he had lived."5

The most important of Caravaggio's later works is his enormous painting "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist", five meters wide and three meters high. It was painted in 1608, when the artist was living in Malta, where he was initially honoured with acceptance into the Maltese Order, but imprisoned six months later after a quarrel with "a most noble knight"; he eventually fled to Sicily.

The background of the painting is elaborately executed, which is unusual for Caravaggio — it shows Herod's palace combined with prison, and symbolizes "earthly authority". As they obey this authority, people who take part in the execution do it in what seems to be a matter-of-fact fashion. However, they are consumed with sadness and fully understand the meaning of what is going on. The screaming characters of Caravaggio's earlier works are now silent. It is the presence of the prisoners in this scene that completes it — they witness the spectacle in front of them as they stare through the prison bars.

It is interesting that Caravaggio's John looks a little like the artist — it is possible that Caravaggio felt that he was the "prophet" of the new art — and it is with the blood which is flowing from John's body (rather, its representation) that the artist signed his name on his painting.

Sometime after, while in Sicily, he painted another remarkable canvas — "The Adoration of the Shepherds"(1609), also shown at the Moscow exhibition. It is filled with great tenderness and deep sadness; there is not only the knowledge of Christ's fate, of the Way of the Cross, but also a premonition of his own untimely end.

However, the art of this master, who lived and died "absurdly", as his contemporaries would claim, would triumph over the passage of time. The immense inner power of his images and the unsurpassed painting technique would ensure Caravag-gio a place next to the greatest masters in the history of art. Simple imitators would copy his separate techniques, and the more original masters would absorb his profound innovations — most importantly, the cult of nature and humanism. The masters of the Baroque and Classicism would turn to his art, which combines the dramatic with the sculptured perfection of form. Almost all the great artists of the 17th century — from Rubens, Velasquez, Zurbaran to Georges de La Tour, Bernini and Vermeer van Delft — would feel his influence. However, it would be Rembrandt who would have the deepest connection with Caravaggio. As different as it was from that of his Italian predecessor, the art of the great Dutch master would give new life to Caravaggio's accessibility, to his psychological attitudes, magical contrasts of light and darkness, and to his deep religious faith. Both could be characterized — to use Pierre Descar-gues' words — by the same striving to remind that faith scorches.6

  1. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Memoires of His Contemporaries. Documents. Moscow. 1975. P.27 (in Russian)
  2. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Memoires of His Contemporaries. Documents. Moscow. 1975. P. 28 (in Russian)
  3. Pierre Descargues. Rembrandt. Moscow 2000. P. 134 (in Russian)
  4. Giorgio Bonsanti. Caravaggio. Moscow. 1995. P. 44 (in Russian)
  5. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Memoires of His Contemporaries. Documents. Moscow. 1975. P. 26 (in Russian)
  6. Pierre Descargues. Rembrandt. Moscow. 2000. P. 135 (in Russian)





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