Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Lombardy in northern Italy in 1571 where he trained before moving to Rome at the age of about twenty. By the mid-1590s he was working regularly as a painter, pioneering a new realistic style depicting street life and interior scenes with people doing mundane things, eating, playing cards, sitting round a table – painted with a lavish attention to detail and with a spectacular use of light and shade to create drama and movement.
His breakthrough came in 1599, when he received a commission to paint the Calling of Saint Matthew and Martyrdom of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The public unveiling of these works a year later caused a sensation and led to Caravaggio’s instant fame. He quickly found wealthy patrons including the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei (1542–1614) who commissioned both The Supper at Emmaus and The Taking of Christ (1602), brought together again in the exhibition.
All the records indicate he was an extremely difficult man, he argued with colleagues and patrons, was involved in several brawls and then, in 1606, murdered a man after an argument over a game of tennis. Caravaggio fled to Naples, where he soon exerted an influence over artists in that city with his light effects and dramatic compositions. He died from unknown causes in 1610, aged just 38.
The key thing about this exhibition is that it is about Caravaggio’s influence on contemporaries and followers. Of the 50 paintings in the show, only six are by Caravaggio himself (and three of those belong to the National Gallery i.e you can see them free anytime). The six Caravaggios on display are:
- Boy peeling fruit (1592)
- Boy bitten by a Lizard (1595)
- The Supper at Emmaus (1601)
- The Taking of Christ (1602)
- Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604)
- Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609)
A handful of others are represented by tiny photographs on the wall labels (e.g. Victorious Love, The Seven Acts of Mercy, The Musicians). But the majority of the show consists of works by contemporaries and followers.
The immediate and lasting impression is that none of them are a patch on Caravaggio. None of the other paintings are in the same league. Caravaggio’s paintings have:
- beauty of detail as in the finish on the fruits and flowers or the beads of water on the outside of the glass vase in Boy bitten by lizard
- the dramatic intensity of composition of a work like The Taking of Christ, where the eye has so many interesting directions to follow – along the shiny black armour of the soldier’s outstretched left arm, down Christ’s arms to his strangely locked hands, across the trilogy of heads from right to left, of Judas kissing, Christ looking down and one of his disciples crying out – or following the curve of the red cloak above Christ’s head around and back to the cluster of three soldiers’ heads with the white-faced lamp-holder clustering in among them.
- In The Supper at Emmaus a whole raft of tricks are deployed to heighten the drama: the lighting highlighting Jesus’ face and casting his shadow on the wall; the outstretched arms of the disciple on the right indicating the depth of the picture plane and drawing us in; the spectacular figure of the disciple half-rising from his chair on the left – in front of this big picture in the flesh I was more and more impressed by this figure and the taut energy of his bent arms lifting his body from his chair. And the commentary made a neat point that even the basket of fruit on the right of the table is actually poised just over the edge of the table and, when you focus on it for a moment, makes you want to lean in and push it safely back onto the table.
Followers and inheritors
None of them are as powerful as Caravaggio; only a handful come close; some are very poor indeed. Particularly poor were:
- The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Orazio Gentileschi (about 1620)
- Saint Gregory the Great by Carlo Saraceni (1619-20)
- Draughts Players by Mattia Preti (about 1635)
- Cupid asleep in a Landscape by Orazio Riminaldi (1628-30)
Take Rutilio Manetti’s Victorious Earthly Love and compare it with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (not in the exhibition but represented by a small colour photo). Manetti’s painting is horrible. What an ugly specimen his cupid is! The commentary does what scholarly commentary does on such embarrassing occasions and dwells at length on the objects symbolising the arts of music and painting and architecture or whatnot – evading the elephant in the room which is how astonishingly ugly and repellent the central figure is.
Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1602), where the dramatic use of extreme light and shade, the stunning mastery of detail, for example the folds of flesh on the stomach, and the naughty impish face – every single element of the painting is by a master of his art, and barely thirty years old.
Obviously all these Italian painters are committed Roman Catholics, and living in the Italy of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition, when the Catholic church really established itself as a worldwide force for reaction, repression, torture and execution.
Quite a few of the paintings here bear out the English poet William Empson’s disgust for a religion which places the torture to death of a human being as its central icon. In The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera the saint has been tied up and the figure on the left is sharpening the knife which he is going to use to cut the skin off the old man’s body. Nice. The commentary tells us that Ribera specialised in the flesh of old men and also attended lots of hangings, floggings and so on, to observe the effect of torture and evisceration on the human body.
Obviously the use of light and the way the saint is looking up into it, as if up to the light of heaven, is dramatic and striking. According to the curators this is due to Caravaggio’s example, though the raddled face of the flayer and even more so the figures behind him have more the weathered blurriness of Rembrandt, with which this painting is contemporaneous.
More contemporary with Caravagio himself is The Ecstasy of Saint Francis by Giovanni Baglione from 1601. Look at the wooliness of the saint’s cloak – poor. Look at all three faces – bad. Any Catholic painting of saints or monks or nuns showing the whites of their eyes as they look up to their glorious Redeemer in heaven is revolting and it’s made ten times worse if there are angels hovering around.
Many of the paintings here rely on the viewer sharing the artist’s lachrymose Catholic sentimentality and/or taste for holy torture, as the original patrons and viewers, of course, would have. If you are a modern post-religious liberal and don’t share this sympathetic opinion of holy torture, then many of the works in the show seem clotted with brutality and/or weeping melodrama.
A striking and typically unpleasant example is Christ displaying his wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino (about 1625-35). Very possibly the striking chiaroscuro i.e dramatic use of light and dark, was influenced by Caravaggio. But it seems a gross, tasteless, blatant image, at odds with the tastefulness which characterises all the master’s works.
A perverse combination of medieval torture with French sensuality comes in Nicolas Régnier’s Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626). The musculature and depiction of the saint’s body is splendid, but the female figures look contorted and unreal, and the combination of their opulent contemporary dress and the figure on the left’s plump bosom give it an inappropriately soft porn feel, a wilting languorousness which is completely at odds with the dramatic intensity and strangely ascetic sensuality of Caravaggio’s best work.
Some of the works seem difficult to justify. In his earlier works Caravaggio painted street scenes and settings inside inns – ordinary folk playing dice, cheating each other at cards and so on. This is used as an excuse to hang a series of paintings on the same subject by contemporary and later artists, some pretty removed in style and feel from the master. Probably the most extreme example is The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs by Georges de La Tour (about 1634). There’s light in it, for sure; and it is a game of cards alright. But the peculiar stylisation of the faces and postures seems a million miles away from the intense realism combined with high drama and intense light effects of Caravaggio.
Compare and contrast with Caravaggio’s John the Baptist (1604), a masterpiece of simple striking composition, brilliant chiaroscuro, mastery of tone and palette (almost everything a variation on yellow, brown, orange) and the brooding intensity of the central figure – and a wonderful celebration of the beauty of the human body, specifically the young, male naked body. Seeing it in the flesh is breath-taking and worth the admission price on its own!
This is less an exhibition of Caravaggio than an opportunity to immerse yourself in the visual world of early 17th century painting in a show which highlights the strengths and weaknesses – mainly weaknesses – of his followers and copyists.
In every room where a Caravaggio original is hung it wipes the floor with the competition, many of which are interesting, some of which are pretty good – but none of them are masterpieces, none have the intensity, purity, drama and sheer skill with oil that Caravaggio was blessed with.
And after spending an hour and a half underground (the National’s main exhibition space is down a massive flight of stairs into a series of basements) in darkened rooms full of Roman Catholic images of humans being tortured, crucified, stabbed, speared, shot and hanged, it was quite a relief to emerge back into the open daylight of Protestant Trafalgar Square.
- Beyond Caravaggio continues at the National Gallery until 15 January 2017
- Caravaggio Wikipedia article
- London Review of Books review by Julian Bell
- Guardian review by Laura Cumming
- Telegraph review by Alastair Sooke
Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions
- Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (August 2016)
- Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (February 2016)
- Every room in the National Gallery (December 2015)
- Goya: The Portraits (November 2015)
- Inventing Impressionism (May 2015)
- Making Colour (September 2014)
- Veronese (May 2014)
- Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (January 2014)