Some of my artist friends who revere the Baroque painter Caravaggio often complain that their hero’s reputation is too dominated by his biography and wild escapades – that Caravaggio the painter is overshadowed by Caravaggio the hell-raiser. Perhaps they have a point. But in Caravaggio’s case it’s pretty hard to ignore the personality and the exploits, as they are the stuff of legend.
To say that Caravaggio had a lengthy rap sheet is not an exaggeration. From the year 1600, his name appears in numerous police reports from Milan to Naples to Rome. Among his many criminal offenses were sword-fights (a murder among them), public brawls, assault and battery, and even a prison escape. Indeed, most of Caravaggio’s adult life was spent either as a fugitive from the law, in jail, or out on parole awaiting a pardon. The rest of his time he spent painting.
Lest I further anger my Caravaggio-worshipping friends, I’d better shift gears to a discussion of Caravaggio the artist. What does that entail? Some pretty impressive stuff as it turns out. In an era when art subjects were idealized, Caravaggio, who detested idealization, dwelled in realism and naturalism. In an era when imagery was delivered with a sublime message, Caravaggio told it like it was, warts and all. In an era when religious themes were portrayed with devout and deferential spirituality, Caravaggio painted those same religious themes with distinctly secular and earthly overtones.
With regard to painting, Caravaggio rejected the popular approach of the day which involved endless drawings, diagrams, and preparations. Instead, he worked directly from life right out of the gate. He always used models and painted exactly what he saw – flaws, defects, the whole of their humanity. If the results were vulgar and unsettling, so be it. A gnarly foot, a bloodshot eye, some saggy, wrinkled skin – none of these things were off limits to Caravaggio. His figures emerge from the shadows in dramatic chiaroscuro, almost three-dimensional, with darkness and light playing startling games of contrast with the viewer.
Caravaggio’s paintings are not for the faint of heart. If your definition of art means “pretty pictures”, better steer clear of Mr. C! He’s not your man. And if you prefer your religious art to be a source of glory, solace and spiritual uplift, again, beware Caravaggio. He won’t pander, tone down, or subdue a thing. Our delicate sensibilities and preconceived notions mean nothing to him. His martyrs and apostles are :gasp!: human. All too human. He left the beatification and canonization to his peers, while he dealt with bold truth and unvarnished reality.
Although I don’t love all religious art, I’m fascinated by Caravaggio’s depictions of sacred religious events. He shows them almost as if they were still frames from a documentary movie or an “eyewitness account”, rather than the static, fictionalized, “airbrushed” images we conjure up in our imaginations. Caravaggio imbues these scenes with intense urgency and an unforgiving eye. The result is some scary shit! But incredible artistic feats nevertheless.
Flagellation of Christ, 1607:
Caravaggio’s models consisted of peasants, prostitutes, and a motley crew of street characters, some of the rough crowd he ran with. But given Caravaggio’s firmly held belief in realism, his model choices make perfect sense. He also employed adolescent boys as sitters, which has contributed to much speculation of Caravaggio’s sexual proclivities.
David after having slain Goliath:
Because I’m such a wimp, I’ve selected some of the less gruesome works of Caravaggio to post here on Museworthy. I’m sorry, but the grisly scenes of gushing blood from slit necks and beheadings and human sacrifices made my skin crawl. Now you’re all mad at me and thinking “Come on, Claudia! Give us the good stuff!”. Nope. Can’t do it. Like I said, I’m a wimp. You guys will have to do your own Googling.
Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603:
It’s not all violence and bloodshed with Caravaggio. This is St. Jerome, from 1606. The cerebral old man is represented as just that, instead of a lofty, holy figure.
In 1610, fresh out of jail, Caravaggio was awaiting yet another pardon for one of his many crimes. Having missed his boat, he was stranded on the shore a few miles north of Rome. Soon he contracted a fever and died of pneumonia at the age of 36. Three days later, Caravaggio’s pardon was granted.