Roberta Green Ahmanson
Next week at London’s National Gallery the last works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, one of the greatest artists the West ever produced, will go on exhibit. Only a small percentage of WORLD readers will probably be able to see the show in person, but Caravaggio’s life and art raise crucial artistic and theological questions.
He was born in 1571, probably a week before a turning point in Christian-Muslim relations: A rare coalition of the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, the papal states, and the Venetian Republic routed the Ottoman navy in the Bay of Corinth near LePanto.
Born into a middle-class Milan family, Caravaggio wanted to be a painter and at the age of 13 signed an apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano in Milan. Art then was still largely funded by the church, often by wealthy cardinals from noble families. Though Florence and Venice were important, Rome was the center of the art world, and the young man biographers describe as having a “hot nature and high spirits” went there in 1592.
This was the time of the Counter-Reformation, an era in which writers influenced by the Council of Trent (1545-1564) called for a change in art. In the wake of Reformers’ criticism of the extravagance and debauchery of the Renaissance popes and the art they sponsored, these writers wanted an art stripped of all trappings, celebrating the beauty in everyday things, and filled with the light of faith.
That Caravaggio did with a vengeance-sometimes too much of one, as when his prostitute models caused an uproar. But his work caused a big splash. It was fresh and daring, full of color and drama, pushing the edges of convention. Caravaggio was the darling of Rome-and his biographers say he knew it.
But in 1606 in a street fight, Caravaggio killed a man. Such a murder was hardly rare in a city where every man wore a sword and the memory of valiant deeds at LePanto was still sweet. Still, Caravaggio had to get out of town. He fled first to Naples where he had family connections, then on to Malta where he became a knight. But just before the unveiling of one of his greatest paintings, the Beheading of John the Baptist, he had yet another fight, and wounded a knight.
Caravaggio lost his knighthood, was thrown into the dreaded Santangelo prison, escaped, and fled 60 miles to Sicily and friends. His behavior was increasingly bizarre and his work changed: thinner paint, lighter and more fluid brush strokes. His subjects were consistently religious and often focused on death, guilt, and martyrdom.
That’s what the London show displays. It opens with a pair of paintings of the Supper at Emmaus, one early, the other after 1606. The first shows a young artist showing off his considerable skill in perspective, foreshortening, drama, color, use of light. It’s almost like an advertisement: See what I can do!
The second painting, though, is another story. The model for Jesus is the same man, but in this version he is older, pensive, the image of a man who has indeed gone through death and come out the other side, wiser. The innkeeper and serving maid are older, weary, thoughtful. It is the moment of the breaking of the bread, the moment of revelation. And Caravaggio has captured it with depth and awe.
The show, along with several portraits and a sleeping cupid, includes his paintings of the martyrdom of Ursula, two beheadings of John the Baptist, and the flagellation of Christ. Gripping images, probing.
The works also portray images, almost prayers, of hope. An Adoration of the Shepherds is calm, quiet, brimming with expectation. Near it is the Raising of Lazarus. The picture is huge and the viewer is there, relentlessly thrust into the action. The arm of Jesus reaches across the canvas creating a plane and an arrow, commanding, demanding that Lazarus rise. Lazarus, held by his sister, is half moving, half still enveloped in the rigor of death.
In this painting, as in many from this period, a void hangs over the action, a weight, a question. It is as if Caravaggio himself is facing a void with no idea of what lies beyond: He seems to want to know, but doesn’t. According to a friend who walked with Caravaggio into a Catholic church, the artist walked straight past the holy water. When the friend asked why, Caravaggio reportedly said, “All my sins are mortal.” No hope for forgiveness there.
The show ends with two images that include the artist. One is David holding the head of Goliath, but the face of Goliath is Caravaggio’s. It is a face locked in terror. The other is the Martyrdom of St. Ursula. Her killer looks out of the picture, sword in hand, defiant yet fearful. Behind the dying saint stands Caravaggio.
This is not a young artist showing off his skill in perspective, foreshortening, color, drama. He is no longer painting pretty pictures. He’s painting the darkness of the human soul. His medium is paint. His vocabulary is visual.
Many biographies of Caravaggio have appeared in the 54 years since a Caravaggio show in Milan turned heads. Scholars have depicted him as storyteller, existentialist, narcissist-and some even have claimed that he was a homosexual. But his late paintings are meditations on the power of guilt, repentance, and the hope of forgiveness, concepts central to the Western tradition but largely lost in the frenzied talk of today.