More About Caravaggio: why study his paintings

A rebel artist and murderer, who died young–it’s no wonder that Caravaggio’s life attracts many biographers. But here’s why I’d rather focus on his paintings than his biography. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote of Caravaggio that he was “one of the hinges of art history: there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same”. 

Caravaggio’s earliest works display realistic still life:

Basket of Fruit (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan)

and skill with human gesture and faces:

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (National Gallery, London)

But his first public commission for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi revealed his genius.

Art in Rome by 1600 had declined from the Renaissance heights of Michelangelo and Raphael. Embroiled in the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic church sought art that reinforced Catholicism to the illiterate masses. Art as propaganda must speak to the uneducated viewer through direct and emotional involvement in an easy to interpret message.  

Caravaggio understood how to fulfill the Church’s objective. He created drama. Painting as theatre became Caravaggio’s medium.

The poor among Rome’s population recognized the message in the Calling of Saint Matthew . They saw a scene from a common bar room on any Roman street. The models for the men sitting around the table were just like them, ordinary Romans in contemporary dress. Only Christ and one of his disciples, Peter, stand apart from the ordinary (although you have to search to find them).

Leonardo da Vinci invented chiaroscuro, literally Italian meaning “light shade”. He used light and dark to create character and dramatic effect. Caravaggio took it to the extreme with tenebroso, Italian for “darkness”. Also called the technique of tenebrism, it emphasizes the darkness and uses light for dramatic effect.
Through the murky Roman bar room, a ray of light highlights the finger of Christ and angles across the canvas to the central figure who gestures, “Who? Me?” or possibly, “Who? Him?”. The light, interpreted as illumination from God or the Gospels, directs the attention. The artist becomes a director, and through his tableau, the viewer experiences movement and emotion. Illiterate Romans could see Christ summoning them, saying, “Follow me!”

Caravaggio’s next commission for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of St Paul, continue these techniques.

These two paintings occupy the sides of the chapel. Over the altar, in the most important position, hangs Annibale Carracci’s Assumption of the Virgin. Carracci sought to fulfill the Counter-Reformation aims by reverting to Renaissance style. For me, Carracci failed to create propaganda. The contrast between Carracci and Caravaggio elicits the response, “Pretty, but boring”.

Not that Caravaggio was without critics during his life. Church elders particularly did not like seeing peasants featured in paintings of religious subjects. Nor did some appreciate the dirty feet of the labourers lifting St. Peter or the horse’s big arse which dominates the painting instead of St. Paul.

But Caravaggio’s influence on artists was pervasive. Different artists took different things from Caravaggio’s works–tenebrism, naturalism, ordinary people and objects as subject matter–and spread them throughout Europe. Thus, Hughes’ assessment of Caravaggio: there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same. Without Caravaggio, there would be no Rembrandt.

Caravaggio’s reputation fell shortly and sharply after his death–probably helped by the fact his first biographer, Baglione, was a personal enemy and his maligning descriptions of Caravaggio’s personality were repeated by most subsequent biographers. 

The lack of records on Caravaggio’s life complicates the sorting of truth from rumour. One remaining documentary source is police records. Caravaggio’s run-ins with the police included carrying a sword, assaults over petty matters, dispute with a landlady over unpaid rent, and fights with criminal types, once involving a prostitute that worked as Caravaggio’s model. Another is court records; fellow artist and later biographer, Baglione, sued him for defamation. In our times, Caravaggio would have had report cards that noted, “He does not play well with others”. But the remaining records probably distort his life.

Historically, his homosexuality or bisexuality affected the reception of his work. The Victorian art critic John Ruskin considered Caravaggio’s work indecorous and described his paintings as filled with “horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin”. Critics in the Romantic period, who would have liked the misunderstood genius image, disliked what they saw as his immoral nature. His work was mostly forgotten or ignored until the 20th century. An exhibition of his work first occurred in Milan in 1951. Exhibition of Caravaggio’s work in North America waited until 1985.

Now, his popularity is higher than it has ever been. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book even attempts to dispel the negative aspects of Caravaggio’s personality.


And you can take a study tour of his works!

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