The Final Years
Caravaggio – an artist of darkness and light
The exhibition of Caravaggio’s paintings is quite small, with only sixteen paintings. It covers the last years of a man who, dying before he was forty, was almost a prototype for the difficult, rebellious and brilliant artist of genius. His paintings astonished his contemporaries, were widely imitated by his fellow artists and confront us with the power and force of his originality today.
He was born in northern Italy, and trained in the Lombard traditions of beautiful and skilful realistic painting. This, and the other Lombard characteristic of painting pictures and portraits close-up, using the top half of the body only, gave directness and immediacy to his paintings. This sense of involvement was enhanced by the fact that he used everyday people for his models, not idealised prototypes. Some of his models are indeed quite ugly; there is a man with prominent ears and a misshapen nose, whose expressive face appears in more than one of Caravaggio’s canvases.
He had a very successful career in Rome. His paintings from that period are luscious and often quite sexually ambiguous, but his career was cut short when he killed a man in a duel. With a price on his head he was forced to flee the city, and never returned.
He took refuge with the Colonna family near his home town in northern Italy, and it was here that he painted the second of the two paintings which start the exhibition. They both depict the Supper at Emmaus. The first, owned by the National Gallery, is familiar to many. It shows the young beardless Christ, miraculously rejuvenated and alive, at the moment of blessing the bread. His companions are shown in the astonishing moment of revelation. The table, brilliantly lit, is a magnificent piece of bravura painting – the bread, the cold chicken on a dish, and the basket of luscious fruit. The innkeeper, a stocky dark man in a linen cap, watches the scene in stolid incomprehension. This picture was painted at the height of Caravaggio’s success in Rome.
Beside it hangs a painting he did four years later on the same subject. The differences are remarkable. In the second picture Christ is older, bearded, his face lined and weary. The whole picture is both simpler and more subdued. A brilliant light still falls on the table but on an earthenware jug and two small loaves. The disciples, too, are older, worn and ragged from privation and grief; the innkeeper and his wife behind him, bewildered by the scene, are wrinkled and saddened by life. Four years of being a fugitive, and all that it meant, are expressed in a deep sense of sorrow and sacrifice, mixed with the moment of joyous revelation.
Caravaggio’s St Francis in Meditation also comes from the early period of his exile. It is painted in shades of brown, showing St Francis in a twisted, almost foetal position in the foreground. The light falls on his absorbed and wrinkled face, just touching the rim of his halo, and isolating him from the aching darkness behind. The free brushwork depicts the light catching the frayed edge of his sleeve and the Bible, crucifix and skull on the ground before him in a picture of sombre power.
The Flagellation is a picture of appalling brutality. It shows Christ being tied to the column before being flogged. The muscular power of the men, the controlled strength of their gestures and movements are all contrasted with the pale and beautiful figure of Christ, twisted as they tie him to the pillar. The way one man, an ordinary man like any of us, uses Christ’s leg to brace himself to pull on his arms is truly violent, and the more powerful because his face, hidden in the shadows, is only half seen.
One of Caravaggio’s most influential pictures was his Crucifixion of St Andrew, painted in 1606–7. The old saint, his body still hale and strong, but his face and neck weather-beaten, is shown preaching from the cross. He is said to have preached for two days and when the authorities tried to stop him by taking him down, their hands became paralysed and they were unable to do so. Caravaggio painted this moment: the strong young man is shocked and immobile, the light that shines on his muscular back also falls across the drooping body of the saint. An ugly, faithful old woman, a huge goitre in her neck, is absorbed by the miracle.
Caravaggio went to Malta, hoping for help towards a papal pardon. His splendid portrait of a Knight of Malta was painted at this time. A formidable man, knight and friar simultaneously, is painted with one hand on his rosary and the other on his sword, the white silk Maltese cross on his breast dominating the composition. However, following a brawl and imprisonment, Caravaggio escaped to Naples.
An artist of renown would always find patrons, and in Naples he painted an altarpiece of the Raising of Lazarus for the Lazzari family. The body of Lazarus extends across the canvas, with Christ in shadow on the left. Light from a heavenly source floods the picture. Lazarus is shown at the very moment of returning to life, one hand hangs still lifeless by his side; the other, raised towards the heavenly light, is brilliantly illuminated. The picture catches the very moment between death and life, shot through with the promise of salvation.
As his life became more dangerous and difficult Caravaggio’s paintings grew more darkly loaded, both in his palette and subject matter. His two paintings of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist are full of conflicting emotions – compassion, horror, regret, indifference. In the Denial of St Peter, the intense concentration of the three figures is extraordinary, with the saint caught in the act of denial, even as it dawns on him what he has done. No bravura painting here, all technique is subjected to the psychological exploration of the event.
Even the Nativity, so often painted with beuty and tenderness, is shown by Caravaggio in a comfortless stable, with the Virgin seated on the hard ground, tightly clasping her baby and seemingly oblivious of the humble barefoot shepherds as they kneel and gaze at the Christ child.
The final picture of David and Goliath, is painted in sombre shades of grey. The head of Goliath is a self-portrait. The compassionate and sorrowful young David, holding his sword, raises the head of Goliath, caught in the moment of ebbing life, the light fading from his eyes, the defiant shout stilled in his open mouth – he is dead indeed, but the final flicker of life just remains.
The pictures are hung in darkened galleries, enhancing the use of light to bring about the emotional and psychological complexity of Caravaggio’s paintings.
National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing, till 22nd May – entry £7·50, concessions £6·50.
Anne Gardom is
New Directions’ art correspondent
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