Caravaggio – Bad Boy of Baroque

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_flagellation1

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:

caravaggio-davidgoliath

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:

caravaggio-sacrifice-isaac

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.

caravaggio-stjerome

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.

16 thoughts on “Caravaggio – Bad Boy of Baroque

  1. lkwinter says:

    Like some character from an Oscar Wilde story, the thought of Caravaggio just being some normal, conforming person without a questionable past would almost seem sacrilegious, like trying to picture a member from KISS without a pair of platform shoes. Oh, and since I’m a guy, yeah, I’m gonna go google some of those depraved and gory images, haha…

    When you decide you can’t model any longer from these pulled muscles and such, you could always write freelance for the art world, seriously. : )

  2. e-string says:

    I’ve liked Caravaggio ever since I was introduced to his works during my first year of college. His photorealism is part of what attracted me. In “The Betrayal of Christ”, the gleaming armor has always had a special draw to me.

    My other favorite might be “The Conversion on the way to Damascus”, for the way the coloring of the horse melds with the light that streams from above onto Saint Paul, whose emotions are so palpable.

  3. artmodel says:

    lkwinter,

    I agree. I’ve told my artist friends that they they should embrace Caravaggio the rebel and troublemaker, but they still get rather testy about it. Personally, I don’t feel the man and the art are mutually exclusive things. I never approach any art that way on Museworthy. Good KISS analogy by the way!

    Yes, baby, you are a true blue guy, who will seek out the depraved, violent images by Caravaggio. And I am a true girl, who couldn’t bring herself to publish such terrifying images on her beloved blog 🙂

    You’re so kind and generous to believe in my art writing. I’m really flattered! And given the way the body is suffering these days I may have to consider a post-modeling line of work sooner than I thought!

    Thanks for commenting, friend.

    Claudia

  4. artmodel says:

    e-string,

    Yes, I almost used “Betrayal of Christ” for this post. So much drama in that composition, and rich colors. An amazing painting. It was a toss up between that and the “Flagellation”. I ended up going with the latter, which I also like a lot.

    Thanks for sharing your love of Caravaggio and for posting a comment. Nice to hear from you!

    Claudia

  5. Lin says:

    I think many artists are as famous for their hell-raising as they are for their art. Francis Bacon, Diego Rivera and Picasso also spring to mind. Maybe the lifestyle influences the art? Maybe these famous “wild-living” artists feel more deeply than ordinary portals, and live closer to the edge of their own sanities and that’s why they give so much of themselves in their work? Maybe rebels who push against the norm make better artists? Who knows?

  6. ColdSilverMoon says:

    Great article, Claudia! Thanks for that post on one of my favorite artists. As a model, his works have given me some great poses to emulate. I often assume a pose similar to “Amor Victorious,” one of his decidedly non-gruesome works, for a long pose…

    http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/image.asp?id=3759

  7. ColdSilverMoon says:

    I tried posting this earlier, but it doesn’t seem to have worked, so sorry if it’s a duplicate…

    Thank you for that article, Claudia! That was a great post on one of my favorite artists. As a model Caravaggio gives me many wonderful poses to emulate. One of the poses I assume often for a long pose is “Amor Victorious,” one of his decidedly non-gruesome works…

    http://www.artrenewal.org/asp/database/image.asp?id=3759

  8. Brian says:

    Excellent post, Claudia!

    I have seen some of these paintings before, but was unaware of the historical background…nice job!!

    Brian

  9. artmodel says:

    Lin,

    That was so well-said. A great analysis of the minds/psyches of creative types. Indeed, they seem to live “closer to the edge”. Many, many “hellraisers” among artists, which is terrific for me because it makes them fun and fascinating to write about.

    Thanks so much for posting a comment. Great to hear from you!

    Claudia

  10. artmodel says:

    ColdSliverMoon,

    Sorry about your delayed comment post. You seem to have gotten caught in my spam filter. But no worries. When I logged onto Museworthy I released you from the grips of Akismet! Probably happened because your comment contained a link.

    I’m glad Caravaggio is one of your faves. I seem to do well with you in that regard! Me so happy 🙂 .

    And thanks for “Amor Victorious”. One of Caravaggio’s most well-known works.

    Great to hear from you!

    Claudia

  11. artmodel says:

    Brian,

    Thank you, sweetie! Since you were familiar with some of Caravggio’s paintings before, I’m glad I was able to provide some historical and artistic context. Greatly enhances the appreciation of the work I think.

    Nice to hear from you, Brian 🙂

    Claudia

  12. Alex says:

    Hi, Muse.

    Like Coldsilvermoon, I have taken poses emulating the subjects of Caravaggio paintings. This is often at the instigation of one of the instructors at Waubonsee Community College where I frequently work who is a big fan of Caravaggio. I also appreciate Caravaggio’s style and execution of his work. Like you, Muse, I am NOT a fan of his more gruesome depictions.

    My instructor friend asked to take a two-day pose emulating Caravaggio’s work “St. John the Baptist” from 1603. I was given a dust mop to hold to simulate St. John’s reed staff in the painting. During the first day I only broke the pose twice in a three and half hour class to take breaks. It took me so long to work out the kinks in my arm and leg that it was time to draw again by the time I had my circulation back. Consequently I never really got around to look at the students’ work.

    On the second day of the pose I did get up and take a walk to see what students had drawn. Most of them had done faithful representations of my pose but one older gentleman had barely drawn more than an outline of my body. He had, however, put in great detail on the head of the dust mop and the sheet partially draping my body. I didn’t make any comment but I did feel a bit miffed that he found the props more interesting to draw than the life model who had been sitting for him five hours!

    That was a Caravaggio inspired posing experience that always stays in my mind. Hopefully no one ever asks me to pose as Holofernes…

  13. Sheramy says:

    Caravaggio RULES! He RULES! My personal favorite is The Conversion of Saint Paul, which today hangs in its original location in Sta Maria del Popolo in Rome. I also like The Calling of Saint Matthew, in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. And the Medusa… and the Bacchus …

    Great post! Thanks!

  14. artmodel says:

    Sheramy,

    You’re welcome! I’m delighted that Caravaggio is one of your favorites. He’s pretty amazing. You mentioned so many of his great works, and I sure had trouble deciding which ones to post. Too many to choose from. The Conversion of Saint Paul is really powerful and intense.

    Great to hear from you, and happy holidays!

    Claudia

  15. ottogoth says:

    there`s no words. his art is just the best

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