Four presumed self-portraits of Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio. Try to find them among his works as you follow his biography.
Caravaggio's life during the 17th
century is certainly among the most adventurous ever led by the world's great creators.
His life story takes place between shadow and light: a man of a passionate nature, he ran the gamut from provocation to murder. A reward was offered for his capture, sending him into perpetual flight and hiding. Yet none of this transpires in his oeuvre, which is doubtlessly the most profoundly fervent oeuvre in all of Baroque painting. This is the miracle of Caravaggio, the miracle of the sacred portrayed in dimensions he alone mastered.
II- Peterzano's workshop
Michelangelo Merisi was born on September 29, 1571, in the little village of Caravaggio in northern Italy. He was named after his birthplace, a procedure not unusual for the times. Enjoying a double status as both architect and majordomo to the Marquis of Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi's father was firmly ensconced in that noble household. The Marquis, a patron in the Renaissance tradition, had several artists at his beck and call. This tradition was quite common: Raphael, for instance, was also majordomo to the pope, as well as the latter's antique dealer, archaeologist, in addition to being in his employ as a painter.
All too often, 19th-century art historians have portrayed Caravaggio as being of humble origin, when in fact, he came from an excellent family of artists. A family, moreover, whose social welfare was in the hands of an excellent marquis, who, in turn, considered himself a patron in the spirit of the 15th
century rather than his own 16th.
As was the fashion, Caravaggio began studying painting at an early age. Indeed, Renaissance and Baroque painters were often destined from birth to be artists, so that already during earliest childhood they learned how to grind pigments. Hence, as young adults, they knew their profession inside out. When Caravaggio was 13, the family decided he would devote himself to painting. He was sent to the painter Peterzano's studio, one of the good studios in Milan. "Good" in the sense that, because Peterzano himself was a poor painter, his apprentices had ample occasion to learn. Unlike talented painters, who tend to impose their vision of the art onto their pupils, the poor painter has nothing to impose. This allows his pupils to blossom out on their own, and to achieve a personal vision. Certainly, a poor pupil will become a poor painter, but the geniuses will accomplish their apprenticeship without suffering damage or influence, and having gained a command of the technique involved. This is the sort of education Caravaggio received.
In 1592, Caravaggio arrived in Rome. Obviously, he would have been better off fulfilling some important local commissions first, so as to have a letter of recommendation from someone important, and to arrive in Rome at a more mature moment of his career.
But Caravaggio decided to settle in Rome immediately, at the age of 21: the age of his first paintings. Unsurprisingly, these met with little success. Rome was crawling with painters, ornamental decorators. Who needed this young man, an unbearable person on top of it all? Someone who openly professed to find the painting being done by his peers unacceptable, who was not impressed by the recognized masterpieces, who boasted he could do better than other artists. The life of misery that stretched out before him seemed romantic during his first years in Rome. A recommendation from his venerable master Peterzano won him employ with the Mannerist painter Giuseppe Caesare, also known as Cavaliere d'Arpino, an even less talented painter than Peterzano, but endowed with two features that were keys to his success: he worked dressed to the hilt, complete with lace cuffs and a sword at his side, and he worked at an incredible speed: two hours for a Saint Cecilia! Cardinals travelled from far and wide to see this phenomenon, as if off to a fair. Cavaliere d'Arpino took advantage of Caravaggio, obliging him to do all the boring work - the flower wreaths, the mascarons, the caryatids - and not paying him a cent for any of it. Caravaggio was totally destitute; rumor has it that he did portraits of the innkeepers to eke out a livelihood. Stealing to eat, squatting to sleep. But he did get lucky. One night, at Piazza Navona, the artist's district, he met a singular person, half French and half Italian, who went by the name of Valentin. Now this Valentin had a brilliant idea: the people who want to buy pictures are people with high-flown names and expensive clothes, and therefore loathe to come into contact with the dusty studios of artists. Why not use an elegant apartment, nicely furnished, where the work of a young painter could be put on display for contemplation by potential patrons? Valentin had invented the art gallery!
Among his first victims - for, obviously, he picked up the paintings for a song and then resold them at high prices - was the young Caravaggio, from whom Valentin commissioned light and charming subjects, sweet and gentle, nothing too brazen, of the sort so popular at the time.
IV- An enlightened patron
In this fashion, with Valentin as middleman, Caravaggio developed quite a substantial clientele. His customers included a certain Cardinal Del Monte, an enterprising individual said to be the most boring of prelates, but the most well-informed of art lovers. The Cardinal lured Caravaggio away from Valentin's stable of artists, offering him room, board, and a salary. But just when everything was going so well for this artist, comfortably installed under the wing of a generous patron, Caravaggio's passionate nature got the better of him and he began acting in most unruly manner. The first "scandal" dates to 1600. Of course, we art historians tend to speak of the greats as impassioned by their art, to which they devoted themselves day and night. But the truth of the matter is that Caravaggio was a drinker, a womanizer, a pugnacious individual who frequently ended up at the police station.
Caravaggio's life was spent in permanent exile. He was obliged to flee Rome, despite the protection of the Cardinals Del Monte and Scipion Borghese. Murder had taken place. Bellori narrates: "Caravaggio, although occupied by his painting, still found time to keep up his troublemaking. After spending several hours of the day at his painting, he would swagger along the city streets, with a sword at his side, clearly proving he had other interests beyond his art."
In one brawl in the midst of playing a game of racquets (royal tennis), he ended up stabbing and killing his young opponent, sustaining some injury himself in the process. Numerous documents testify to the fact that Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni da Terni on the Campo di Marzo, May 6, 1606.
He fled Rome, penniless and barely out of pursuit's reach; he found sanctuary in Zagarolo, under the protection of Duke Don Marzio Colonna, for whom he painted a Christ at Emmaus and and a half-length portrait of Mary Magdalene, works since lost. He next set off for Naples, where, having already made something of an artistic reputation for himself, he received several commissions. But his behavior kept getting worse, and he again committed murder - not once, but three times. Caravaggio had become a murderer. His life was fraught with danger despite attempts at his protection, and would, from then on, be spent in constant flight.
VI- A destroyer of the art of painting
SCaravaggio's delinquency lent credence to the criticism directed against his art: he had numerous detractors, from countless sources. Indignant and offended voices rose in clamororous disapproval. Among the most disparaging of his critics was Nicolas Poussin who, at the time, lorded over a coterie enthused by the sort of classicism for which Poussin himself was the high priest: a clear sense of proportions and calm. Contemplating Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin
Death of the Virgin" created a scandal. It was common knowledge that the artist had killed, that his soul was black, and that therefore his painting would be black. This painting in particular instigated all the debate over Caravaggio's verism.
The Virgin is truly dead. Her body shows the marks of her death: her stomach, torso, and face are turning bluish and swelling. Her ankles show a corpse-like stiffening, so true to life that his contemporaries were horrified.Built up entirely of verticals that fall from the ceiling, the pain this work conveys defies description.
The Virgin was refused at the time. Today, justice has been done her: this painting is a Louvre masterpiece, and hangs face to face with the Mona Lisa.
Centuries have since passed, proving the beauty and forcefulness of this artist's oeuvre.
, Poussin began to scream, shouting angrily: "I won't look at it, it's disgusting. That man was born to destroy the art of painting. Such a vulgar painting can only be the work of a vulgar man. The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell." Stinging criticism that would take much time to subside. For two centuries, Caravaggio's work lay forgotten, and it was not until the Milan exhibition of 1951, that his oeuvre went on display to a public at last become aware of the depth of artistry involved.
Caravaggio's scandalous reputation earned not only wails of disapproval, but also cries of admiration, of unbridled enthusiasm. Baglione, the somewhat mannered chronicler of pre-Baroque Rome, asserts: "A head by his hand was more expensive than a large-scale composition by his rivals, so great was the public favor in which he basked." To which Baglione could not refrain from adding: "...public favor that judged with its ears rather than its eyes."
The admiration of the "pro-Caravaggio clique" painstakingly fostered by Cardinal Del Monte was sincere. Young painters made a point of paying visit to the artist. Navigating between admirers and critics, Caravaggio endeavored to carve out a career for himself. As much a man as a painter, his impassioned and quick-tempered nature unfortunately corroborated the appalled observations spread by his detractors.
VIII- A promising start
Commissioned to paint the ceremonial shield for an armor destined for the Grand Duke of Toscany, Caravaggio depicted a Medusa Head (detail)
Medusa Head, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Caravaggio's first self-portrait as an adolescent. One of this artist's first know works seems to have been a private commission by the Cardinal del Monte (according to Bellori), a Roman aristocrat, as a gift to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. The preceding era, which was Mannerist, had enjoyed spectacles. The 17th century would continue to wax enthusiastic, as is testified by the "carousels" (exhibitions or tournaments for horsemen) organized by Louis XVI at Versailles. The same sort of carousels took place in Florence as well. Extravagantsuits of armor and costumes were created for these equestrian shows, so that the spectators could feast their eyes on all the luxury and magnificence. For the Grand Duke of Tuscany, disguised as Perseus, a shield decorated with the head of Medusa was commissioned. The head was made of raging snakes. It is Baglione who recognized in this Medusa headthe first self-portrait by the - at the time adolescent - Caravaggio. This work, produced when the artist had barely turned twenty, is built up in all simplicity yet makes a great impact. The passion and violence of the head have a frightening effect. For the first time, Medusa gives viewers a fright. The Grand Duke of Tuscany liked his shield so much that he held on to it afterwards. Most probably, he never knew the artist who painted it, a certain Michelangelo Merisi, the future Caravaggio.
exuding violence and passion. His was the first Medusa head to inspire fear.
Caravaggio's early works were secular. At the time, the public was tired of all the grand mythological and allegorically pietist scenes typical of the late Mannerist period. Art lovers were attracted to restful works. To meet this new demand, artists began working in a pre-Rousseau style, implying a return to fresh and truthful feelings. Valentin excelled at selling this sort of "genre painting".
Caravaggio's contributions were:
- Boy with Fruit Basket
Boy with Fruit Basket, Rome, Galleria BorgheseBasking in light, evanescent, worldly, hollow, and elegant, the youth here has bared a shoulder, lending his portrait an appreciable ambiguity. His half-smile is slightly asthmatic, quite in keeping with the times.
- Boy Bitten by a Lizard
Boy Bitten by a Lizard, London, National GalleryThe subject is ever so commonplace, the rendering is highly dramatic. Beyond the bite and the fright experienced by the boy, lies universal anxiety.
These were small paintings ("tableautins") suitable for the period habit of filling in the spaces between large-scale mythical works with such small pictures, turning picture walls into a frame-to-frame mosaics. Caravaggio's works fit right in with this fashion. Bacchus.
Bacchus, Florence, Galleria degli UffiziCaravaggio played up the elegant heroism asked of him. There is much to admire in this Bacchus: the white drape, the still life, the deliberately pink and humid rendering of the flesh. Caravaggio excelled at metaphor. The inebriated state of the young Bacchus is brought across with a wholly different talent than in this artist's preceding works. The amazingly skilful torso, from the vantage point of painting, is not heroic. Note the foreshortening of the arm, the color that makes a red-faced culprit of this Bacchus, his lost gaze at the vine branches he does not deserve to wear. Caravaggio played up the elegant heroism asked of him. The picture contains all the makings of high tone and great elegance. The rest is besides the point. His approach is strangely verist, a realism that brought down discredit on the artist, instead of the recognition he deserved. detail.
This painting is what we can probably label as the first real "Caravaggio". His earlier works followed a relatively easy traditional format, executed rather dryly. But then he began seeking his models along the river banks, among the dregs of Roman society. With a subject such as Bacchus, the public felt uncomfortable with his choice. They felt even more ill at ease when it came to his use of such models to portray Jesus. An important point here is that Caravaggio repudiated what was considered good form at a time in his life when he could hardly allow himself to do so. To get his career underway, he should first have provided what was in demand, works in keeping with the taste of his times, and have waited until later before introducing inventions of his own. But this he refused, and his refusal turned each work he produced into a revolution. The results were a far cry from genre painting; rather, his painting represented a play on genre painting, underscored in each new work in an ever more brutal and impassioned manner. Finally, he asked Valentin to free him of the obligation of producing works on genre subjects. The real Caravaggio was in the process of being born, and Valentin, realizing this, asked for ever more works of the sort. In a fit of resentment, Caravaggio provided Sick Little Bacchus.
Sick Little Bacchus, Rome, Galleria Borghese, ca. 1593 Contrary to the rumors that spread in the 19th century, this portrait was not done after a model the artist was said to have poisoned in order to see him die! Perhaps, Caravaggio wanted to show that he had had enough of Bacchus, explaining why portrayed him in the throes of agony.
IX- Compositions on a vaster scale
Michelangelo Merisi began replacing the solitary figures produced during his years of apprenticeship by compositions on a vaster scale. He created works with two, even three, figures, but still focusing on subjects light in spirit: The Fortune-teller
La Diseuse de bonne aventure, Paris, Musèe du LouvreThe shaft of light here basically serves to create a dialogue between the two figures, a dialogue between two gazes. In the 16th century, the theme of the fortune-teller, the gypsy, the Egyptian, was very much in fashion. It represented a sort of morality, a metaphor. Thus, the young man is meant as the prodigal son who has strayed from his family, the believer who has lost his way from the Church.
Although beautifully painted, this piece was not understood at the time, for several reasons:
detail A divinely painted work: seen in detail, the gypsy's hand and that of the prodigal son prove the point. And these are hands painted but early in his career - pretty hands, but still a bit Mannerist. We will be seeing what sort of hands he came up with over the years.
- the fact that the two figures are cut into half-lengths (instead of the more familiar full-length portraits)
- the fact of isolating the two figures (instead of the more familiar background landscapes showing off the artist's talent)
- the simplicity, i.e. vulgarity, of the setting - a plain whitewashed wall
- the unrealistic source of light
- strangely accented diagonal lines of force, coming from nowhere and heading nowhere
- the illogical positioning of the window. Critics noted: "He does not know how to observe reality."In point of fact, this is the first time that Caravaggio uses light as a signifier. Light here traces reality, underscores it, even exalts it. The shaft of light basically serves to create a dialogue between the two figures, a dialogue between two gazes. It defines the relationship between the two figures.
At this point in his career, Caravaggio set out, at first quite discreetly, on what would be a lifelong quest: the search for light that, born from nowhere, represents a revelation of divine origin. His oeuvre outstripped genre painting or even pure chiaroscuro painting, gradually turning into the most mystical painting possible by the hand of man. The light in his oeuvre, taking its source in the divine, not only portrays reality but helps us understand the reality being depicted.
Basket of Fruit
Basket of Fruit, Milan, Pinacoteca AmbrosianaA bold approach to a commonplace subject. This painting's only aim is to show off the painter's skill. Instead of the Dutch profusion to which viewers had become accustomed in the 15th century, this still life is done in all simplicity, in all concision. There is nothing talkative about this work. A basket, a few apples, grape bunches, all rendered with great verisimilitude: spotted fruits, showing maggot holes, greenfly-bitten leaves. Life and death are always present, depicted with rare audacity in a totally non-anecdotal setting. No pretext is provided to distract the eye from the implacable rendering of the basket of fruit. This basket is painted against a gold background, like a Byzantine mosaic. An additional audacity is that of using the bottom of the painting as the table upon which the basket rests. A truly basic vision of the fruit basket, whose innovative character - a bold approach to a commonplace subject - but few viewers would appreciate.This approach would be taken much later by Matisse, of course, who in turn would be criticized as not knowing how to paint.
A work that has more to offer than its realism. The subject of this painting is a greatly loved myth that was frequently depicted during Caravaggio's era. However, only few presented this theme so audaciously. The scene is cut in half, more or less, to provide exact symmetry between Narcissus and his reflection. Were the painting to be folded in half, the two halves would match entirely. A bold step that left - and leaves - viewers astonished.
Clearly, between his first genre painting and what we now see, the artist's intention had changed. The subject matter is new, reality is apprehended differently. Nonetheless, there remains a certain charm linked to paintings of genre subjects. Caravaggio would lose no time in erasing such facile seductions, turning out works less and less "pleasing" in the real sense of the word. These works would have fewer and fewer touches of bravado for bravado's sake, would come to depict the essence of their subject.
Caravaggio did not remain an industrious artist-toiler in the pay of a gallery dealer, but became the protegé of a cardinal. This would lead the artist to religious paintings.
X- Profoundly mystical painting devoted to religion
Rest During the Flight into Egypt
Rest During the Flight into Egypt, Rome, Galleria Doria-PamphiliCaravaggio reinvents the traditional iconographic vision.Many versions of "Rest During the Flight into Egypt" had been painted from the Byzantine era to the 16th-century point when Caravaggio entered the scene. But the latter's version of this theme is totally innovative: who ever heard of portraying the calves of the angel instead of "Rest" itself?! Highlighted by the half-light that seems irradiated by the angel, the sleeping Virgin and Child are portrayed to the right. To the left, and in the shade, Joseph plays but a bit part: that of a lectern. It is the angel who holds the main role, playing the violin and reading the music held up by Joseph. The angel constitutes the main axis of the work: a striking figure among the range of browns, the only white spot, dynamically enlivened by the drape that seems to join in with, to illustrate, the music. Although still a far cry from the compositions that lie ahead in this artist's career, the importance of this piece lies in the new world it opens. With this painting, Caravaggio reinvents the traditional iconographic vision. Caravage réinvente la vision iconographique traditionnelle. The angel is rendered musical by the flow of his drape, and static by the arrow-straight posture he holds. The play of light on the wicker-encased
flask shows the hand of a master. A work of a precise and concise nature, marked more by the fullness and solidity of its depiction than by its realism.
, Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Judith Beheading Holofernes, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte antica, Palazzo BarberiniEverything in this painting conspires to underscore the absurdity of this murder.Caravaggio takes a frightening approach to this theme, at a time in art history when this sort of terror was deemed acceptable. This work dates from quite recently after to the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day (murder of French Protestants, the Huguenots, Paris, 1572). People then were less squeamish than today: the fact that the blade is shown slitting the dying man's throat, that a delicate young girl holds the instruments, and that the attendant looks Gorgonian, put no one ill-at-ease. At the time, this painting was appreciated for the fall of Judith's skirt and the curtain drapings. The drapings give an illusion of dynamism; they lend violence to the gesture depicted. And the outer fragility of Judith underscores the impact of this act of murder, the spurt of blood, the screams of agony, the riveted gaze. The dramatic composition is magnificent. Judith's beauty is portrayed in full, yet the horror she feels comes across by the knitting of her brows and the terrible concentration of her gaze. Judith beheads Holofernes under the watch of the attendant.
The amazing servant seems to represent the real mastery involved in this work: her expression is totally closed but somehow discloses a sort of sadistic sensual pleasure and attentive supervision. This casts her more in the role of a bird of prey or a reptile than a human being. Between Holofernes's agony
, his impressive scar, and the horrible gaze of the old woman, Judith's impassive beauty provides a striking contrast reminiscent of the contrast between the angel and Joseph in "Rest During the Flight into Egypt". The beautiful head of Judith, her brows lightly knitted, her lips moist with candor and innocence. Candor and innocence that the pure pearl hanging from her earlobe with a black velvet knot accentuates. Everything in this painting conspires to underscore the absurdity of this murder. The very absurdity that underscores the horror of the event.
The artist tried out several approaches: a bucolic approach in "Rest During the Flight into Egypt", expressionism in "Judith Beheading Holofernes". Here, in Repentant Magdalene (detail)
Penitent Magdalene, Rome, Galleria Doria-PamphilMagdalene has shut herself off from the world, in a deeply meditative stance.This painting has the austerity and grandeur of the classical, the academic, mode. It is a reflection in the secular world of what Magdalene was in the sacred world, that is one of the saints most often portrayed in Baroque art. As the story goes in the Apostolic, Catholic, and Roman Church, Magdalene adorned herself with gold, only to later reject such flashy accessories and discover the humility of the naked body, of true introspection. The Church is a Magdalene, and Magdalene is in fashion. She divests herself of her ornaments, just as the Church seeks to rid itself of the excesses of its members.
The subject was typical of the age of the Counter-Reformation. A richly dressed sinner abandons the very finery of her sins: her jewelry. She has broken them and set them aside to the left of the picture, thus composing a sublime still life, a "Vanitas". To the intoxication of wine, she prefers meditation, drawing near to God, as a new form of intoxication. She has shut herself off from the world in a deeply meditative stance, forming a marvelous ovoid, or fetal, shape, brought to life by the strange light that bathes her. Magdalene is preparing her rebirth; by the same token, both she and Caravaggio are being born to the world.
A detail of this marvelous painting...the gold chain...the string of pearls ... an earring that, strangely enough, reappears in almost all this artist's works, like some sort of occult signature. Baglione commented - somewhat nastily - that Caravaggio painted the flask of wine in order to prove to his customers that he had lost none of his painterly skills. The light that shines within the wine heightens its appeal, thus showing even more clearly how difficult it was for Magdalene to give it up.
, he affects a certain pietism, taking a classical approach to the subject of meditation and, in so doing, discovering his vocation. Caravaggio would paint the great mysteries of our faith, for he himself, deep down, was a believer. But he would do a great deal of soul searching in the process. Saint Catherine of Alexandria
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza CollectionThese three instruments - instruments of death and instruments of salvation - lend three-dimensionality to this saint.The magnificence of her garb is counterbalanced by the silent austerity of the composition. The simple and concise composition conveys the position taken by the artist against the sophisticated and affected work being produced by his fellow painters. In the form of a huge cupola, Saint Catherine - and her generous grey, blue, and silver brocade dress - take up the entire surface of the canvas. With consummate skill, Caravaggio allows the instruments to provide space and perspective. The wheel defines space, the sword perspective, and the palm leaf, distancing.These three instruments of torture - instruments of death and instruments of salvation - lend a three-dimensionality to this saint that belies the enormous flatness of her dress.
Saint Jerome, Rome, Galleria BorgheseOne of the most lifelike memento mori to have been created in Baroque style.
Early in the 17th century, this saint was a popular theme. To portray him was to show that science had reverted to the wisdom of a new religious fervor, a subject typical of the Counter-Reformation. All schools and all painters became involved in spreading this word. Here, we see a saint and a skull - emblems and symbols of the Baroque period - in celebration of "memento mori" (reminder of death). An intense dialogue is going on between the two: the saint to the left, the skull to the right. The face of St. Jerome, animated by his studies, and opposite, with a gaze that is almost just as alive, the face of death . There is osmosis between the smoothness of the skull and that of the saint Jero's bald head. Notice how both strain
Notice how both strain towards each other: the skull by the gaze of his empty orbits, and the saint by an arm prolonging the still life of the open book. An extremely dynamic horizontal movement draws them closer. This painting is one of the most lifelike memento mori to have been created in Baroque style. Caravaggio painted both in extremely bold fashion. There is such a resemblance between the skull and the saint's head that one can feel the skull under the saint's head. This illusion represents the fact that St. Jerome seems to have accepted the idea of death. This will explain the submissiveness his entire body seems to express. His submission, the sacrifice of his mortal body, are beautifully underscored by the table's horizontal and vertical lines: a basic geometric construction that keeps the viewer's eye from missing the point.
By this time, the artist had realized a turning point in his self-definition: he knew that he would devote himself to depicting the epic story of Christianity. He sought to work out a suitable vocabulary, a personal language. One aspect very typical of his youthful production, or one could say of this first level of maturity, was the need to repeat certain subjects several times over: for instance, a first version of "David with the Head of Goliath", and then a second version taken to even further extremes.
The theme itself was very popular during this artist's era, and was generally portrayed in grandiloquent fashion, mostly in pale pinks and blues, to match the taste of the day. Striving to transform mannerism into reality, here is what Caravaggio did with the theme:
David with the Head of Goliath
David with Head of Goliath,Vienna, Kunsthistorisches MuseumA sibylic gaze, the gaze of a prophet.
Illuminated by a shaft of supernatural light, David steps out from the night, his expression emptied of all content by a divine vision. He casts about a sibylic gaze, the gaze of a prophet. Holding the enormous and very human head of Goliath in his hand, David himself seems to be holding death in abeyance. Goliath seems on the verge of howling with anger and rage. Both faces - basking in the light in somewhat similar fashion - form a staggering dialogue. The marvelously built up composition represents an iconographic reversal: David seems frail in the face of the enormity of Goliath's head, yet projects, in the horizontality granted to his arms, shoulders, and sword, restrained and decisive strength. The most handsome face of David, carved out by the violent lighting full of shadow, is typical of this artist's clearly defined chiaroscuro. His apparel, a cloth drape, is almost absurdly chiselled out, too strongly. The opposition between black and white bestow a form of presence on David, a suit of armor so to speak. Did Caravaggio consider this work as accomplishing certain effects? Detail of David's head , of Goliath . The belt . Note the transition from white to ocher in the drape, the technical skill, the speed of the brush. Some of the brushstrokes, taken individually, foretell what would be the work of a Velasquez, a Franz Hals. The freedom, the skillfulness of the brushstrokes.
The second version David with the Head of Goliath
David and Goliath, Rome, Galleria BorgheseThe dialogue here is between the youth of the living figure and the maturity of the dead one.
In this version, the expressions on the faces of David and Goliath are more problematic, tenser. David has triumphed, but is it really a triumph? He conveys pain and anguish in the face of death, in the face of the mortal blow he just has dealt. Unlike the Vienna version, he is not at all triumphant here; he seems almost at a loss over the responsibility of taking someone's life. Tension-filled melancholy transpires. Chiaroscuro is taken to extremes. Note the visionary manner in which the body is handled, the way it has been deliberately distorted so that the figure seems even frailer. The expression on David's face shows commiseration, pity. Usually, David does triumph, but here he seems on the verge of crying over what he just did. Notice how the scene as a whole has been simplified. Everything has become more hieroglyphic. David has none of the allure shown in the preceding version. We are presented with meditative sadness, a total lack of setting, the immensity of the night, and a tautened dialogue between the youth of the living figure and the maturity of the dead head. Clearly, this version follows suit and perfects the preceding one. The cloth draping here, in black and white, is among the most beautiful ever achieved by Caravaggio.
Goliath is no longer a simply frightening mask: surprisingly, the expression on his face is more of resignation, as if he were expressing, from the realm of the dead, his acceptation of his own death. The details are so compelling that art historians tend to consider the head as a self-portait . Did Caravaggio actually wish to immortalize himself behind the features of Goliath, between the latter's great pain and the furious Medusa's terrible shriek of revolt? Be that as it may, one thing is sure: once one has seen this face, been captured by its gaze, it remains unforgettable.
is absolutely hallucinatory. Thus it was through repetition of a subject - a subject vigorously pursued, scrutinized, and analyzed - that Caravaggio learned to bring out the most in himself as a painter.
One of his favorite subjects was St. John the Baptist: whom he portrayed five times
- Saint John the Baptist, Rome, Musei Capitolini A St. John the Baptist reminiscent of a Greek shepherd
. A painting more sensual than religious, mundane yet still very Mannerist. A strange painting indeed to hang in a sacristy.
- Saint John the Baptist, Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Palazzo Corsini
A man in the street.St. John the Baptist is portrayed as older here, a man in the street, whose facial features bespeak a closed and commonplace mind. The round neckline of his attire reveals traces of a tan. This version was found to be shocking at the time.
- Saint John the Baptist, Rome, Galleria Borghese.An ambiguous portrait. The seductive allure of the first version has been completely abandoned here, but this time the face is surprising: it bears the empty expression of someone whose eyes never had registered anything. As if he were in a stupor, in the etymological sense of the word, but at the same time hollow, ready to resonate. This is an extremely ambiguous portrait.
- Saint John the Baptist, Kansas City, W. Rockhill Nelson Gallery of ArtSculpted out of shadow and light . Here, the figure's heroism is more marked, space is taken up in more definite fashion. The play of light and shadow allows the ambiguity of the saint to come through on his face: it appears peaceful, but the work's clear-cut demarcation between shadow and light lends it violence. It is as if the figure were sculpted out of shadow and light. This version is considered the most similar to Michelangelo in its monumentality. But to the contrary of the latter's epic genius, the monumentalism in this work by Caravaggio takes place in total silence. His is a work of total silence, total serenity, despite the dramatic effects of light and dark.
- Saint John the Baptist Basel, Kunstmuseum
each time seeking to outdo the last.
Madonna of the Pilgrims
Madonna of Loreto, or Madonna of the Pilgrims, Rome, Sant'Agostino Church
The Virgin stands on the threshold of her home, holding a Child who has grown since the visit of the Three Wise Men. The pilgrims have come to see the baby, now too big for his mother's arms. Her contraposto stance is more comfortable for holding such a heavy child. She seems to be simply saying: "Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever will be, knock at my door and I shall show you the Son of God".
A most loving welcome, as emphasized by the ardor of the couple in the foreground, aged pilgrims imbued with artless simplicity, who strain forward out of love for the child they see. The Mary and Child confronting them has none of the bluish haze customarily shrouding the sacred in Baroque art. Something other than an emblem or a vision, the mystery here is transformed into reality.A work built up with great simplicity, revealing a basic truth most characteristic of Caravaggio's mature years.
or the Madonna of Loreto. Although notorious for drinking, stealing, raping, looting, and murdering, Caravaggio continued to paint through thick and thin. Martyrdom of Saint Peter
Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo ChurchNo one could imagine how the loins and dirty feet of his executioner would someday exalt the sacrifice of a saint condemned to die in the mediocrity of the everyday.
This painting features two gigantic diagonals, in keeping with the aesthetic canons of the times: one formed by St. Peter's body, and the other by the straining body of his executioner. Nevertheless, the work was considered scandalous.
In the main role, we have the executioner, or, more precisely, his buttocks. This in itself was a most bold stroke, not to mention his dirty feet. No one could imagine how the loins and dirty feet of his executioner would someday exalt the sacrifice of a saint condemned to die in the mediocrity of the everyday. Notice how clearly St. Peter's despair comes across in his facial expression!
Conversion of Saint Paul
Conversion of Saint Paul, Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo ChurchWe meet up again with the egg symbol here, and the idea of the rebirth of the primitive Christian tradition.
Paul was a guardian-priest of the temple of Jerusalem, an originally Jewish city practicing the persecution of the early Christians. On the road to Damascus, Paul was struck by the divine light.
Caravaggio succeeds in creating the illusion of a miracle, for it is a miraculous light that falls upon Paul. Where does it come from? From the phophorescent lighting of the horse's belly? The divine light breaks over the horse to better illuminate the figure on the ground. Just as in the painting of Magdalene, the composition closes into an ovoid shape, underscored by St. Paul's arms.
We meet up again with the egg symbol here, and the idea of the rebirth of the primitive Christian tradition.
Entombment, Rome, Pinacoteca Vatican We find ourselves at the bottom of the sepulchre, waiting to receive the body of Christ, and very much concerned about the sacrifice.
In this scene built up in a most forceful Baroque rythm, the figures are shown standing, then bending ever lower until, finally, bowing their knees and being carried to the bottom of the sepulchre by the weight of Christ's body. The corpse slides heavily into the tomb. The picture breathes matter, heaviness, weight. And the onset of a stiffening.
How terrible to see a martyr's body being unloaded into the tomb. Caravaggio does not situate the viewer above the scene, which would allow a certain detachment, but underneath, with the subject on a counter-plane.We find ourselves at the bottom of the sepulchre, waiting to receive the body of Christ, and very much concerned about the sacrifice.
In this work, Caravaggio reveals himself as a man of faith, through the importance he lends to Christ's mortal body. He does so by means of a signature verism he would continue throughout his artistic career.
Caravaggio had kept on painting during the days preceding the murder he was about to commit: near Cardinal del Monte's residence, a brawl of four against four took place over a game of racquets (royal tennis). Backed by Onorio Longo and Captain Antonio Bolognese, Caravaggio himself was wounded, but managed to kill Ranuccio Tommasoni de Terni ("Avvisi" di Roma, 31 May 1606).
Hence, no sooner had commissions began pouring in than he was obliged to flee Rome. He found refuge in Palestrina, with Prince Marzio Collona, brother-in-law of Marquis di Caravaggio. October 6th found him in Naples, facing a long period of exile. Here he had to start all over again, but it was for this very reason - deprived as he was of all security, roots, and official protection - that he would produce his most overpowering paintings. What came at this point in his career surpassed all he had accomplished before.
The chronicler Babioni indicates that Caravaggio painted this work very quickly during his time of exile in Palestrina, in order to earn the price of his fare to Naples. Madonna of the Rosary
Madonna of the Rosary, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches MuseumAn audacious, potentially dull work.
Caravaggio, who was fond of architecture on a grand scale, was commissioned to represent the Virgin offering rosaries to all the representatives of the Order of the Rosary of Naples. An audacious, potentially dull work. Its success lies in a composition totally inflected by the diagonal to the left, a diagonal revealed by the arms, hands, and gazes of all the figures, with the Virgin playing a mere bit part.
, Seven Works of Mercy
Seven Works of Mercy, Naples, Pio Monte della Misericordia ChurchA typically Baroque spirit of challenge.
Caravaggio, with his typically Baroque spirit of challenge, painted the seven works of mercy into a single composition. The telescopic effect this produces is what at once makes the work so strange and reveals it to us. The disparities are united through two angels, as marvelous and tumultuous as those portrayed by Michelangelo, but that disconcert by the artistic liberties employed. The angels summarize and sort out the different works of mercy. detail.
. We have, so far, mentioned the main stages in this painter's career: Milan, Rome, Naples. For the usual reasons, he subsequently was obliged to flee Naples; he set sail for Malta, where he became painter for the Grand Master of the Order of St. John who, it is said, admitted the artist to the Order. Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt
Musée du Louvre - Paris
, Caravaggio's art was now at its zenith. While living peacefully on the island of Malta, under the protection of the Knights of the Order of St. John, he painted one of the most moving portrayals of John the Baptist ever achieved: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist
Beheading of St. John the Baptist, La Vallette (Malta), Cathedral St. John And the scream that hounds us.
A work over 5 meters long at the base, a gigantic piece made up of emptiness and silence. Never had a beheading been accomplished more consciously than in this scene. Nothing but night and walls. Night and stone, against which the echo of Caravaggio's depiction resonates. The echo of a recipient being carried, of a scream emitted, of the anxiety that sets in. The immensity of this blackness, this darkness, conveys a threat far more fatal than the revenge of God. Murder is being accomplished in the anonymity of the enormous darkness that serves as background to the infamy being perpetuated. A - more than ever - divine shaft of light illuminates the horror of the beheading. Salomé, to the left, marked by black and white, is hardly recognizable. The scene also includes the executioner, the saint recognizable by the red of his drape, the red of his blood. And the scream that hounds us.The scene takes place in an immense prison, darkened by the surrounding blind walls, where light barely seeps through the small window at which two prisoners witness the event itself, together with the shaft of light that miraculously illuminates it. Two figures are bent over: the executioner and Salomé, in fact two executioners: one with intent to kill, and the other accomplishing the gesture of killing. The arms of both figures are treated in parallel, expressing the dialogue between the two. Strangely enough, a woman and a man - dressed in period clothes - watch the scene; they seem numb with horror. St John the Baptist loses his head, and his blood flows between the incredibly choreographed similarity of the two gestures.detail
, for the Cathedral of Valette. The rather worn theme of Salome and this saint, the dialogue between the woman and the severed head, attracted painters from the first primitives of the Roman era on through until Lucas Cranach (1472-1553) of the Mannerist period, but never before had the subject been handled at once so supremely and so damnably.
As chronicled by Baglione, Caravaggio - having gravely offended one of the knights - was imprisoned, managed to escape and flee from Malta. He reached Sicily and settled in Palermo, from where he travelled for temporary stays in Messina and Syracuse.
Raising of Lazarus
Raising of Lazarus, Messina, Museo Regionale, 1609A first impression of this work's diagonal architecture gives way to the discovery that its main axis is vertical.
The light in this painting justifies and renders existent the corpse of Lazarus.It shines dully on the corpse, and vividly on the living figures. The dialogue between the dead body and the living people who seek his raising is thus dramatized. Everything is built up into a great diagonal axis. Upon closer inspection, this diagonal is contradicted by the absolute horizontality of Christ's arm as he orders Lazarus to rise. A first impression of this work's diagonal architecture gives way to the discovery that its main axis is vertical. This progression imposed by his painterly language is characteristic of Caravaggio's oeuvre; each work demands to be scrutinized and studied. None can be read at a single glance. Each is a world into which the viewer must step. A work by Caravaggio is something to be deserved.His depiction takes up but the lower half of the picture. The dramatic weight of the rest of the scene is palpable, weighing down on the raising like the hand of God. The line along Lazarus's body is emphasized and supported by the generous spiral line of the figure bending over to kiss him. The two lines prepare the way for the revelation of Christ's life-giving presence. Christ's strength and dynamic verticality, emphasized by the solid beam in the background, his legs in walking position, his arm stretched out at right angles to his body, lead Lazarus from a horizontal to a vertical position. The crowd surrounding the scene follows the movement of his fall and subsequent resurrection. Only the Christ figure imposes its verticality through the hand that bestows life and, by the same token, expresses God's will.
This painting boasts far more than its admirable composition. Like so many of Caravaggio's works, it is charged with significance.
Adoration of the Shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds, Messina, Museo Regionale Never was the miracle of Christmas so perfectly depicted.
Emptiness is also present in this work, projecting a marvelously sacred silence, and underscoring the cold isolation surrounding the birth of baby Jesus. The shepherds stand to one side, and the the Virgin and Child are all the more moving by appearing to be lost in reality, as if cut off from everyone and everything. Never was the Virgin made to appear more tender or protective, never was the miracle of Christmas so perfectly depicted.The lines of force in this painting are built up in extraordinary fashion: those of the standing shepherd's cloak, the next shepherd's shoulder, and the Virgin's arms bring the picture to life, and highlight the tenderness of the central group. This diagonal is compensated by a whole series of verticals formed by the shepherds: the vertical from the forehead to the knee of the first, from the shoulder to the calf of the second, and from the forehead to the foot of the third. This play of verticals enables the diagonal formed by the Virgin to spread out in all majesty. Caravaggio used a limited palette, creating a camaieu of browns enlivened by a hint of blue. Economy of means. Caravaggio invented the play of shadow and light, and never does he show the source of a work's luminosity. Light flows in from outside, from very far away, from very high up. This light could be the hand of God, or God's will.In the almost total darkness characterizing this artist's works, light breathes life into the important figures. Here,light falls on the Virgin and Child, the cheek of the exhausted Virgin against which the baby Jesus seems to find peace, and the weary hand that holds Him.Light is used to its full advantage in Caravaggio's works, for he succeeded in capturing it better than any painter before then.
. The rumor of his imminent pardon reached Caravaggio. We have followed this artist from site to site and stage to stage, discovering an artist ever more imbued with the religious mystery he so masterfully painted and so fervently conveyed.
Indeed, the works he produced were so deeply mystical and essential, testifying to such a true sense of the sacred and, above all, such a heartfelt comprehension of the message of Christianity, that the Roman people were ready to forgive Caravaggio all. In a happy frame of mind, the artist set off for Naples without remembering to officially declare himself a passenger. In other words, he became a stowaway, and, in order to ensure his fare, was obliged to hand over his possessions as security. This was something he was not prepared to do and, stupidly attacking one of the sailors, he brought down upon himself the wrath of the entire crew. Wounded, he left the ship at Porto Ercole where, furious and desperate, he ran up and down the beach under a scorching sun, trying to pinpoint on the vast sea the vessel sailing off with his belongings. By noon, fever forced him to lie down and there, after three days, without the least human assistance, he died in the same fashion as he had lived his life, namely all alone. This took place on July 18th.