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Why Caravaggio?

by Thomas S. Hibbs

The announcement this July of the discovery of nearly 100 hitherto unidentified paintings by Caravaggio caused an international stir. The paintings, stored for centuries in a castle in Milan, where Caravaggio was an apprentice in the 1580s, were initially heralded as one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of art. The excitement quickly waned, however, as it soon became clear that scholars had viewed the works in question for years without anyone’s suspecting they were Caravaggio’s. The decision to publish the facts about the discovery in an e-book format rather than in a scholarly journal increased skepticism, to the point that Amazon pulled the book.

The claim itself and the interest it provoked testify to what some scholars call the Caravaggio disease, an obsession that consumes lives. Although Caravaggio had a wide following in the years after his death and influenced painters as significant as Peter Paul Rubens, his work was thereafter little noted until the middle of the 20th century. Since then he has enjoyed both critical acclaim and popularity among the art-viewing public. In 2010, a huge retrospective exhibition in Rome on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death attracted long lines of visitors. Books on his life and art continue to be published at a remarkable rate, among them Andrew Graham-Dixon’s readable and perceptive recent book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. What accounts for the surge in critical and popular interest? Perhaps a more important question: What is the enduring significance of Caravaggio’s art?

Part of the attraction is his dramatic and tragic life. Many details of it fit the modern conception of the artist as a countercultural bohemian, a romantic rebel against the standards of civilization. His rowdy and bawdy nocturnal antics, which included numerous altercations with the local police, culminated in a fight in which he mortally wounded his opponent. Facing a murder charge, he fled Rome, just as his work was in high demand in Roman ecclesial circles; he spent years on the run in Naples and Sicily — all capped off with a mysterious death in 1608 just as it looked as if a pardon might enable him to return to Rome. Derek Jarman’s 1986 film, Caravaggio, a fictionalized biography, highlighted the artist’s sexual escapades and his violent temperament. A few of Caravaggio’s religious paintings were rejected by Church authorities of his time for the appearance of impiety — which further burnishes his image as a heterodox rebel. (One of these rejected works was The Death of the Virgin, a commission for a Carmelite church in which Caravaggio presented the swollen, dead body of Mary — the model for whom was apparently a prostitute — in a less than dignified pose, and in unkempt clothing.)

If this were all there were to him and his art, Caravaggio would not merit our sustained, careful study. Certainly his stylistic innovations warrant attention. Caravaggio is most known for his so-called naturalism: He was said to “paint from life” because he used models and because he did not, in most cases, idealize human figures in the way Renaissance painters did. His paintings could also be called naturalistic for another reason: He had a penchant for street settings and for focusing on the ordinary, poor denizens of cities. Soon after arriving in Rome in 1592, he announced his presence with a series of paintings featuring the pagan god Bacchus, card sharps, and fortune-tellers. The combination of innovative subject matter and novelty of style set him apart from his contemporaries. But the very use of the term “naturalism” reveals how elusive such a notion can be. Caravaggio’s naturalistic effect is the result of dramatization and artifice: He has his models pose in striking ways; he typically drops any concern with background, draping his characters in an enveloping darkness; and he often uses an unnatural source of light, coming from a single spot, frequently above the figures and hitting them at angles to bring out certain key features.

But his techniques, however revolutionary, are not there simply to display the creative prowess of the artist; instead, they serve to bring the viewer into intimate contact with the drama depicted on the canvas, a drama etched on human faces. The current popularity of Caravaggio may be part of a salutary reaction against the marginalization, in some circles the banishment, of the human figure in 20th-century art. In his book on modern art, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain argues that the first and chief victim of modern art’s commitment to abstraction is the human figure, “the natural sacrament,” as Maritain calls it.

Caravaggio’s attention to the human figure is not that of the idealized image found in ancient Greek sculpture and recovered in Europe in the Renaissance, nor is it that of the portrait genre that would have such a huge impact in the centuries after Caravaggio. Instead, his exquisitely detailed rendering of the human figure, especially the human face, is in the service of capturing, in a snapshot, the drama of the human condition.

This is a highly theatrical art, what Graham-Dixon astutely calls a “proto-cinematic art.” Instead of painting figures at a distance and in full length, Caravaggio makes half-length paintings and specializes in what we might call close-up. The result is to highlight the immediacy and physical presence of the objects and figures depicted. Caravaggio’s influence on painting in the last century was limited. (Picasso said that he wanted the horse in Guernica to resemble the bulky horse in Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul.) His most telling influence in the 20th century was on filmmakers. Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Pier Paolo Pasolini all invoked him. Mel Gibson said that his goal in making The Passion of the Christ was to create a “moving Caravaggio.” As remote as the content of Caravaggio’s art is from our art world, his cinematic style renders his work accessible to us.

In his magisterial Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, philosopher Charles Taylor argued that one of the novelties of the early modern period was the sanctification of ordinary life, as the life of labor, marriage, and the family gravitated from the margins of the good life to its center. The notion that sanctity can “penetrate the full extent of mundane life” is, according to Taylor, essentially a Protestant notion involving a rejection of the medieval, Catholic idea of the sacred, which requires the mediation of a church and a system of sacraments. The attention to ordinary life tends over the long run toward de-sacramentalization; it also tends away from the compressed drama of classical theater and toward the novelistic interest in the details of daily life, again increasingly for their own sake. Caravaggio infuses the details of ordinary life, sometimes quite vulgar details, with a sacramental mentality.

The inclusion of ordinary folks, indeed the depiction of saints and sinners alike with features and bodily dispositions of the sort one could encounter walking the streets of Rome, made Caravaggio the painter of and for pilgrims. And once he began to receive ecclesial commissions, Caravaggio embraced Rome as the city of pilgrims (and saints). His twin paintings in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo — The Crucifixion of Saint Peter and The Conversion of Saint Paul — welcomed pilgrims at the most common entrance to the Holy City, the Porta del Popolo; and his painting Madonna of Loreto, in the Church of Sant’Agostino, was along the pilgrim path to St. Peter’s. The barefoot pilgrims in threadbare clothes at the center of that last painting celebrate not just the Madonna before whom the pilgrims kneel but also the simple piety of the indigent pilgrims themselves. In other paintings, Eucharistic motifs are prominent, as, for example, in The Supper at Emmaus, which captures the very moment in which the disciples come to recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. In The Entombment, those lowering Christ’s body, which is itself worn and scarred, into the tomb are old, with wrinkled and weary faces. As they struggle to maintain their grip on the body, they have reopened the gash in Christ’s side. Christ’s body appears to be falling out of the picture frame, into the tomb, or, in the chapel setting for which the painting was commissioned, onto the altar where the sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated. The Eucharistic connotations are palpable.

The drama of sin, judgment, and redemption brings us round to Caravaggio’s tragic life, and to the first-person commentary on his life that is visible in his art. Caravaggio frequently included self-portraits in his paintings. An early Young Sick Bacchus features a Caravaggio looking at once lascivious and feebly pallid — perhaps an indication of the misery that accompanies lives devoted to sensual pleasure. InThe Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio is in the background staring wide-eyed at the scene, but his posture is that of one fleeing, as if he were confessing his own cowardice. In The Taking of Christ, he is one of the soldiers holding a lantern to illumine Judas’s act of betrayal — a role that both implicates him in the betrayal of Christ and suggests the peculiar calling of the artist to clarify the truths of salvation history. Perhaps the most dramatic of Caravaggio’s self-references occurs in the large-scale painting he did for the Knights of St. John in Malta, the only painting he ever signed,The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. In what many have seen as an act of public penitence, he signed his name in the fluorescent blood that pours from the saint’s body.

That points up another reason Caravaggio appeals to the people of our times: He is obsessed with violence. Caravaggio’s proto-cinematic style means that he is one of the few classical artists whose images can compete with our violence-saturated visual culture. But — and this is what makes him an artist and not merely an entertainer or worse — he aims to instruct and not just mesmerize.

– Mr. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothingwas published earlier this year by Baylor University Press.

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