Caravaggio: Man and Mystery
[To view the original Met Museum live lecture on YouTube, 2008: taped, click link below:
Caravaggio was controversial. In a Who's Who of painters his police record would take first place; his antisocial behavior ranged from throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter to killing a man on a tennis court. He was equally controversial in his art--few painters in history have provoked such extremes of praise and condemnation from their contemporaries. No major religious painter had so many altarpieces rejected--only to be snatched up by some of the most discriminating connoisseurs of the day. Caravaggio was praised and damned for one and the same thing--his bold and often brutal naturalism, his revolutionary aim to paint the people and objects of the natural world as he saw them--to do otherwise, he claimed in a rare statement about his art, would be but "bagatelles, child's play.” He was admired in his time, but begrudgingly, considered a useful reformer who restored naturalism to art, who brought it back down to earth after decades of flights of mannerist fantasy, but at the same time a revolutionary who went too far.
"It is true that painters who strayed too far from nature needed someone to set them on the right path again--but how easy it is to fall into one extreme while fleeing from another." So wrote the late seventeenth-century biographer and critic Gian Pietro Bellori, who labeled Caravaggio a mere "imitatore della natura," an imitator of nature who often, in his words, "degenerates into low and vulgar forms." Three centuries later, we can better appreciate the paradox of Caravaggio--that powerful genius who broke into Italian art at the dawn of the Baroque era like a bolt of lightening, electrifying his own age and sending a current down through the art of the entire seventeenth century. He lived only thirty-nine years, his career confined to two decades and a few dozen major commissions; he had no workshop, no students or school of assistants; yet he left an indelible imprint on artists to come--including Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez, to name a few minor examples!
His early years and training are shadowy: Born in Milan in late 1571, he was named--prophetically-- Michelangelo; his father, Fermo Merisi, was major domo and builder (perhaps architect) for the marchese of Caravaggio, a small nearby town where the nobleman had his country estate. When young Michelangelo was five, the family moved back to Caravaggio to escape an outbreak of plague, but his father died a year later. Yet the family had property, so the boy probably had a normal schooling--Latin, catechism, sums. Before he turned 14, he was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano in Milan for four years--an eminently forgettable painter who signed himself “pupil of Titian"!--then he was back in Caravaggio for a few years.
Approaching his twenty-first birthday, in 1592, with his share of an inheritance (his mother had died two years earlier) he set out for Rome--still the cultural capital of Europe and mecca for aspiring artists-- probably meeting up with his uncle, already a priest in the papal city. A Vatican lawyer Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci ("Monsignor Insalata"), housed him in exchange for turning out copies of devotional pictures to be shipped back to his home town for sale.
The next year, Caravaggio teamed up with a young Sicilian painter, fifteen-year-old Mario Minnitti, his companion and helper for several years to come, and turned out hack work for a Sicilian painter named Lorenzo, small pictures sold on the street--or in Piazza Navona, as we still see today. Hospitalized for several weeks following a kick by horse, he painted several pictures for the prior of the hospital. His first good break came in 1593-4, when he was hired by Giuseppe Cesari, later known as the Cavaliere d'Arpino, a leading Mannerist painter of the day, to specialize in painting flowers: his Borghese Boy with Fruit (1593) illustrates his early proficiency in still-life--his anatomy is less convincing.
From this time dates his first self-portrait as a pale, greenish Bacchus, the so-called Bacchino malato. After eight months with Cesari, he found a well-connected patron, Monsignor Petrignani, a high-ranking Vatican official, and moved into his palace. For Petrignani he painted the Fortune Teller (Louvre) and the recently rediscovered Cardsharps (Kimbell, Fort Worth), two multi-figured genre paintings, each a witty deception perhaps illustrating misadventures of the prodigal son. The Cardsharps caught the eye of Cardinal Del Monte, the Medici representative in Rome, who purchased it and in 1595 took Caravaggio into his palazzo near Piazza Navona.
The cardinal’s sophisticated, rarified, precious milieu is reflected in such works as the Met’s Concert (95-96) and Hermitage’s Lute Player (95-96)--both featuring music and androgyny (the lutenist was mistaken for girl by Bellori), replete with symbolism beneath the sensual surface. The subsequent Bacchus (Uffizi, 1596-97), with his ungodlike red cheeks and hands, dirty fingernails, and decaying fruit, and the Boy Bitten by a Lizard (London, 1596-97) have provoked various, complex interpetations, from homoerotic to moralizing genre with symbolic cherries and flowers of love (“no rose without thorns”): note the carafe reflecting the artist’s studio window.
From the same time date his earliest known religious works: The Ecstasy of St. Francis (Hartford, 1596), Del Monte's patron saint (note supporting angel recruited from Met musicians), natural (sunrise, campfire) vs supernatural light. An original interpretation of the Stigmatization (no seraph in the sky): now an internal, private first example of a major Caravaggio theme that still resonates eighty years later in the late Bernini. His Penitent Magdalene (1596-97, Doria Pamphilj), could easily be mistaken for a contemporary genre scene but for the jar of ointment and pearls, added by painting out a corner of her brocaded dress.
We may compare her to the year-or-two-later regal St. Catherine, with the still-life of martyrdom: the wheel, sword, palm, and faint halo that once again lift the image out of genre, or portraiture. The darkening atmosphere already foreshadows his Judith (Nat. Gal. Rome, 1598), the first example of high drama, and violence, in a biblical scene: note the sword now in action (same model, here as Judith, the Old Testament heroine).
The Assyrian Holofernes' "silent scream" he later recapitulated in the beheaded Medusa (Uffizi, Florence}, whose horrifying head had turned men to stone--here as a ceremonial shield given to Ferdinando de' Medici by Cardinal del Monte. The Judith marks a turning point, away from the softly lit pictures of profane pleasures to dramatic religious subjects, illumined by metaphysical light (the beheading takes place in dead of night, so this light--too warm for a lightning flash--clearly emanates from a divine, supernatural source). The setting is minimal, while gesture and psychological content permeate the canvas.
We may compare his brilliant masterpiece of the new mature style, The Supper at Emmaus (London, 1601), almost identical in dimensions and format, a tour de force of technique and innovation by Caravaggio approaching thirty years.
This is the painting that Bellori singled out as illustrating his “failing in decorum”--Bellori castigated “the rustic character of the two apostles, the Lord who is shown young and without a beard, the innkeeper’s failure to remove his cap, and a basket of fruit out of season” for a biblical scene that takes place the day after Easter, or in springtime. Yet three centuries later, the American abstract painter Frank Stella would write in the NY Times that “Abstraction today wants to make sure it can have everything Caravaggio served up in The Supper at Emmaus, a painting filled with projective gesture, psychological presence and pictorial import.”
Caravaggio follows St. Luke’s account of the story, and the Venetian tradition, e.g. Titian’s scene of startled recognition at the moment Christ blesses the bread, a variation on Leonardo’s famous Last Supper. The Resurrected Christ’s far-reaching gesture is framed by the thunderstruck disciples; the right one flinging his arms in the form a cross, as though to exclaim “But, Lord, you were crucified!” The Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti wrote that the movements of the body reflect those of the soul and therefore thought and feeling should be conveyed through outward gesture by artists. Already Caravaggio reveals himself a master of psychological and dramatic rhetoric; his gestures spead louder than words.
But what of some of Bellori’s complaints? Let’s cross-examine them. First, the youthful beardless Christ, so unlike the familiar face of Jesus. (The great Berenson called him “against all tradition and precedents, a boy preacher startling the yokels out of their wits”). Yet this face reveals Caravaggio’s brilliant solution to the mystery of why these disciples had failed to recognize him--an original solution he based on scripture, St. Mark’s brief reference to the risen Christ appearing to his disciples “in another likeness.” The particular likeness he chose harks back to the earliest type in Christian art, young and beardless, as found on the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, and revived, a millennium later, by Caravaggio’s namesake Michelangelo in his famous Last Judgment, also the source of Christ’s contrapuntal gestures.
The innkeeper has failed to remove his cap in the presence of the Lord precisely because he remains outside this miraculous revelation, lit by metaphysical light, the light of enlightenment. But his head casts a symbolic shadow, a negative halo, so to speak, above Christ’s head, where we might expect the more traditional one--perhaps signifiying that even those ignorant of Christ may yet honor him unconsciously.
Likewise the basket of fruit, admittedly out of season, but here richly symbolic with Eucharistic grapes, the apple of Adam’s fall, and pomegranate, symbol of resurrection. It recalls Caravaggio’s early still lifes (Borghese Boy) and rivals his only pure surviving still life, that magnificent--almost monumental--basket in Milan, once owned by Cardinal Borrommeo. Here, at Emmaus, perched even more precariously at the table’s edge, it casts a metaphysical shadow in the form of a fish, the ancient symbol for Christ. These symbolic shadows reinforce the metaphysical nature of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, the juxtaposition of light and dark, recalling the Latin maxim “lux umbra Dei,” light is the shadow of God.
Note: For my 1977 original article explaining this painting, click link:
The disciples are deliberately rustic, simple folk, common humanity, realistically rendered, but dignified in their humility. One wears the cockle shell, symbol of a pilgrim, as though to say: we are all, even the lowliest of us, pilgrims on the way to Emmaus. Caravaggio was repeatedly criticized for populating his religious pictures with such ordinary people--a friend of mine once remarked he was sure Caravaggio would feel right at home on the New York subways! He infuses his religious subjects with a power and conviction, a humanity, that is confrontational yet also reasonable: the disciples, after all, were simple folk, not like the high priests and pharisees, the establishment of Roman-occupied Palestine.
At this time he was in the midst of his first large-scale ecclesiastical commission, for two large wall paintings for the Contarelli chapel in the French church of San Luigi dei Francesi, off of Piazza Navona. Devoted to the life of St. Matthew, author of the first Gospel, these wall paintings were the first of their kind in Rome to be executed in oil on canvas, rather than in fresco. Begun in 1599, they were finished in 1600, and together with their profane counterpart, Carracci’s Farnese Ceiling frescoes, unveiled that same year, they herald the dawn of the Baroque in papal Rome. But unlike the sunny glory of Carracci’s overhead revival of Michelangelo and Raphael, Caravaggio’s dawn is shrouded in shadow. Is it indoors or out? Light from the upper right (over a wall, it seems) yields some clues.
In this street or alley, a group huddles around a table, like the cardsharps, but here counting money. Christ and St. Peter at the right, alone in ancient costume, turn in their steps, as the Lord points and calls the tax collector Levi to a new life as his Apostle Matthew, with the simple command, “follow me.” Christ’s gesture, once again lifted from Michelangelo--here Adam’s hand in reverse--reminds us of Christ’s traditional epithet as the New Adam, and that we are witness here nothing less than a new act of Creation. Matthew points to himself, as if to ask, “Who, me?” while his avaricious colleagues, young and old (with spectacles), keep counting. The two young dandies, right out of cardsharps and fortune teller, mainstays of Caravaggio like Shakespeare’s colorful, walk-on characters, with plumed hats and ever present swords, look on, puzzled. The light that picks out Christ and this group is again metaphysical, with no revealed source, but emanating from our own space outside the picture plane. Perhaps the window covered with oilskin is from Caravaggio’s own studio in Del Monte’s palace (as we saw reflected in the carafe of the Boy with Lizard).
On the opposite wall he painted the physical violence of Matthew’s martyrdom, a scene of cacophony and confusion (it went through two revisions). We first are drawn to the scowling face of the nearly nude, pagan executioner, his sword extracted from the first thrust, blood flowing from dying Matthew, as he prepares to deliver the coup de grace; then the horrified scream of the young acolyte, who turns to flee, the divine light of Matthew’s heavenly reward is personified by a cloud- supported angel with palm; and in the far background, a self-portrait of the artist looks out towards us with a conflicted expression as he turns and flees the scene.
Two years later, Caravaggio was commissioned to complete the chapel with an altarpiece of the evangelist Matthew writing his Gospel. The first version, destroyed in WWII, was rejected by the priests (and immediately purchased by the more discriminating Marchese Giustiniani) because the saint lacked decorum--his bare foot protruding over altar toward priest and viewer, his plebeian face (actually a portrait of Socrates), an illiterate whose hand (writing Hebrew) is guided by an androgynous angel. It was, in fact, too sophisticated for traditional taste: a Socratized Matthew, proclaiming divine inspiration through divine ignorance (“The wisest man is the man who knows he knows nothing”--Socrates). The second version is more traditional, now revealing the same face as the side pictures, taking back-handed dictation, so to speak, as the angel ticks off the generations of Christ’s ancestors on his fingers: uno, duo, tre. In 1600 Caravaggio received his second major commission, two paintings for another memorial, the Cerasi chapel of Sta. Maria del Popolo. The contract called him egregius in urbe pictor (“the city’s distinguished painter”) and called for the Martyrdom of St. Peter, and Conversion of St. Paul--the two chief apostles to Rome, here shown prostrated on each side of the altar--a revision of Michelangelo’s Pauline chapel frescoes in the Vatican. St. Peter, the first pope, crucified upside down, turns toward altar and viewer in defiant martyrdom for Christ: note the prominent backside of executioner, and his dirty bare feet--something no classical artist would have shoved in the viewer’s face, as it were.
Designed for the opposite wall, his first version of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus reveals multifigured chaos amidst blinding light and Christ’s voice (“Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?”), embodied in a heavenly apparition, as in Michelangelo. But Caravaggio discarded this version--now in the Odescalchi collection--for a revolutionary revision, an unprecedented closeup emphasizing the horse’s hind quarters (right out of a Dürer print)--editing out the apparition of Christ (not mentioned in the bible), now relying on gesture and light alone to convey the internal conversion (symbolic source of this supernatural illumination is the radiant dove of the holy spirit frescoed on chapel ceiling; its actual source, as I discovered to my surprise one late afternoon is the setting sun that briefly blazes, with blinding intensity, through the high transept window opposite chapel).
One hostile critic called it an accident in a blacksmith’s shop. Caravaggio’s Saul, dressed as Roman soldier who had persecuted the new Christians, lies prostrate, eyes closed. No celestial vision, no external trappings, only an uncomprehending groom (like innkeeper at Emmaus). Saul’s eyes are closed, everything happens within, as Saul is converted into Paul the future apostle and saint. Other artists had shown his blinded eyes wide open like, e.g. Parmagianino (Vienna, 1527); not Caravaggio: he literally took the bible at its word, for in Book of Acts we read: “Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing” --so while hearing the heavenly voice his eyes must have been closed--simple, logical, faithful to the text. His gesture is the sole sign of saint’s mental state.
My first introduction to this work was through a poem, “In Santa Maria del Popolo” by Thom Gunn, poet in residence my freshman year at Princeton (a Caravaggesque figure himself, of the leather and motor cycle set! A more typical poem of his is “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death”!) : “O wily painter,” Gunn asks, “limiting the scene from a cacophony of dusty forms to the one convulsion, what is it you mean in that wide gesture of the lifting arms?” Then, at the end he finds his answer in this “large gesture of solitary man, Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.”
The outstretched arms--defensive yet embracing--and the sensual vulnerability of the sprawled body (which even the horse respects with raised hoof) suggest the sublimated eroticism of a saint in ecstasy, and call to mind another poet, a 17th-century contemporary, the English metaphysical poet John Donne: “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you as yet but knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend, that I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me and bend your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new...” and, at the end of this metaphysical sonnet: “For I, except you enthrall me never shall be free, nor ever chaste except you ravish me.”
Paradoxically, at this very time of Caravaggio’s deepening religious vision, and his success as a painter almost exclusively of large-scale sacred works, his personal life darkened; his name began to appear regularly on the police blotter; he was arrested fourteen times and jailed six or seven times over the next six years--for carrying his sword without a license, for spreading libel against the painter Baglione, for hurling stones at his ex-landlady’s window, for hurling a plate at a waiter, for assaults with his sword.
By the year 1600, he seems to have moved out of Cardinal del Monte’s palace (though on at least two of the times he was jailed, he sent to the cardinal for help--and he was always bailed out by eminent friends, including the French ambassador). At the same time, his longtime companion Mario Minnitti got married and moved back to Sicily. Caravaggio was evidently now on his own, something of a drifter (five years later he reportedly had no permanent address); though well paid for his altarpieces--which he delivered on time--and given to buying rich clothes, we’re told he wore them into rags, ate his meals on a wooden board covered with an old canvas as table cloth, between work paraded around the streets, from tavern to tennis court, brandishing his sword and dagger, followed by a boy [Cecco, his assistant and occasional model, who later became a fine Caravaggesque painter in his own right] and sometimes a black dog named Raven which did amazing tricks. His rival Baglione described him as “superbo e satirico...un poco discolo”--haughty and satirical, and rather wild; Cardinal del Monte acknowledged he was “stravagantassimo”--most eccentric. Perhaps that’s the closest we can come to comprehending this extraordinarily complex, hot-blooded genius. And perhaps we may glimpse that proud, satiric side of the artist who railed against venerating past masters (who said nature was teacher enough), in two provocative revisions of Michelangelo.
The first, a young John the Baptist, stripped of all religious symbols (and all clothing) except for a sacrificial ram, an ambiguous quotation of Michelangelo’s ignudo on the Sistine ceiling; “tra il devoto et profano,” as one priest complained at the time--“between pious and profane.”
We may compare him with the more mature St. John the Baptist, a few years later, today in Kansas City, my favorite Caravaggio in America--a brooding adolescent already suggesting in his smoldering countenance (familiar to any parent of a teenager!) the future fire-and-
The second, even more pointedly provocative is his Victorious Amor (as in Love conquers all), his irreverent one-upsmanship on Michelangelo’s idealized Victory in Florence. Triumphant Cupid, a impudent urchin with birds’ wings, brandishes his arrow as he poses with his battle trophies of civilization and worldy powers. According to one account, this picture, Giustiniani’s favorite, was so admired it gained Caravaggio’s release from prison! Arrests and imprisonments notwithstanding, the commissions continued.
Among his most acclaimed is the masterpiece of the Vatican collection today, his Entombment of Christ, commissioned in 1602 for the chapel of the Pietà in Santa Maria in Vallicella.
Echoes of Raphael (Borghese) and Michelangelo’s famous Vatican sculpture, here incorporated within this triangle of grief--the Virgin here old, her protective gesture juxtaposed with those of the two younger Marys. The choreographed gestures and bodies combine in a diagonal descant, from right to left, from vertical to horizontal. St. John’s hand presses the side wound, as the body is lowered into its grave, the altar and chapel where the priest and viewers stand, the protruding corner of the symbolic stone (Christ as the cornerstone) connecting the two spaces and realms. If only one picture could be saved in the Vatican, this would be my choice (I would never let it cross the Atlantic again to come here, as it did a decade ago for the Vatican show). His most acclaimed work in its time, it was later copied down the centuries by artists from Rubens to Cézanne.
The last of his Roman altarpieces, still in place, is the Madonna di Loreto in San Agostino (1603-4). Familiar pilgrims, with dirty feet, Everyman kneeling in pure faith and humility before a vision of Madonna and child at the entrance to her Holy House in Loreto (transported miraculously by air express from Nazareth to Italy several centuries earlier!). The actual Madonna di Loreto is a votive statue; Caravaggio’s statuesque figure, its effortless pose defying gravity, is here brought to life, like Pygmalian’s statue, by love and humble faith. The folded hands seem almost to touch the Christ Child’s feet--bringing the divine almost into reach of mortals.
He seems to have used the same dark beauty as his model for the large altarpiece for the Palafrenieri, or papal grooms, originally destined for St. Peter’s but later relegated to their nearby church until they rejected it (was it the Christ child’s nudity or the Virgin's décolleté, or St. Anne’s, the grooms’ patron saint’s shrivelled face?); it was purchased by Cardinal Borghese, the pope’s nephew. Perhaps the model for the Virgin was the mysterious Lena, described as Caravaggio’s “woman who stands in the Piazza Navona” over whom he got into a violent brawl and chalked up yet another arrest. A strange symbolic work illustrating the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (the Vrigin’s role as co-redeemer in triumphing over evil), she and her nude Son together crush the serpent’s head as her mother, St. Anne, piously looks on; a quietly evocative if somewhat stilted image of three generations, of the three ages of Man.
Another contemplative masterpiece, an evocative image of old age also in the Borghese collection is the great St. Jerome, translator of the Bible, theologian, and above all, penitent saint, whose own “skull beneath the skin” compares with the “death’s head” before him as a memento mori. Again, muted colors and somber atmosphere are charged with a dramatic splash of red--as again in his last major Roman altarpiece, and his most famous rejection, the Death of the Virgin, commissioned for the Carmelite Church of Sta. Maria della Scala.
The apostles gather around the dead mother of Christ, here shown miraculously young. She is barefooted, as are the apostles-- a source of contemporary criticism, but befitting a church of barefoot Carmelite monks--her bright red dress accentuated above in the weighty bed hangings, also a cloth of honor, a funeral dirge of fabric; her face alone is bathed in soft light while a faint gold halo sets her apart from the rest of humanity--the grieving apostles, a series of magnificent variations on a mournful theme, joined by the weeping Magdalene in the foreground, seated, spent, with head bowed before the copper pan of water and cloth with which she ministered to her Savior’s dying mother (recalling her similar role in anointing Christ before his Passion); John, the beloved disciple at the place of honor at Mary’s head.
How unfair the charges that Caravaggio had scandalized the faithful by displaying the swollen corpse of (some said) a prostitute; perhaps she appeared too human, and all too dead, for some ecclesiastical tastes, but her poignant dignity is apparent to more sympathetic eyes, and Caravaggio’s achievement did not go unrecognized by the young Rubens, who arranged for his patron, the duke of Mantua to purchase it-- but only after a public viewing in Rome demanded by fellow artists; it later passed to Charles I of England and Louis XIV of France--not a bad provenance-- before finally landing at the Louvre.
But by the time of this vindication by Rubens, Caravaggio had fled Rome on May 31, 1606; two days earlier, in a duel on a tennis court he, himself badly wounded, had killed his opponent. Now a fugitive from justice--no doubt with the help of some powerful friends--he had escaped to the Sabine hill estates of the Colonna family. There he painted his second, tellingly somber and muted, Supper at Emmaus, an appropriate subject for the painter beginning his own long pilgrimage toward redemption (in his case, a papal pardon) for his crime. No more youthful Christ, no bombastic gestures: all is hushed, as the familiar bearded Lord reveals himself at a humble meal, the innkeeper is now accompanied by his wife, like the two pilgrims at Loreto (or, more immediately, the old St. Anne in the Madonna of the Snake). The lighting is dimmer, the colors subdued, the shadows deeper and swallowing the light--a melancholy air pervades the work, reminding us that the vision was only a fleeting one, that Christ would momentarily disappear from their sight, leaving them to ponder his miraculous intervention along their journey.
Caravaggio’s own journey would take him next to Naples; by autumn he was at work on a huge altarpiece, The Seven Acts of Mercy, for the Church of the Misericordia, an aristocratic foundation devoted to alleviating suffering in that disease-ridden, poverty-stricken city, the largest in Italy.
The subject--or, rather, conflation of subjects--is taken from the parable in Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me...” To these six, the traditional seventh Catholic act is added, burying the dead, in the background, illumined by a torch--an explicit, internal source new in Caravaggio, but later so common among his followers, the Caravaggisti. Almost lost in the crowd is Jesus himself, dressed as a pilgrim with cockle shell (that familiar motif) welcomed by an innkeeper, illustrating Jesus’s pronouncement: “inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Above, intruding on this nighttime street scene along with metaphysical light, are the Madonna and Child supported by a marvelous “brace of angels”--Caravaggio’s most Baroque formulation of heavenly aerodynamics.
The following spring of 1607, Caravaggio completed a second Neapolitan altarpiece, The Flagellation, for the church of San Domenico. Set in a grim dungeon, with muted color, and again dark shadows that devour anatomy and surrounding space--a sadistic triangle of torturers enframe the suffering Christ, crowned with thorns, head bowed, being tied to the column before the scourging begins. He alone is bathed in celestial light, lending him almost classical, statuesque dignity, as he turns in dynamic and painful contrapposto.
He painted his next dungeon scene in Malta, where he sailed in the summer of 1607, in hope of gaining a knighthood (his former master, now the Cavaliere d’Arpino and his nemesis and inferior imitator Baglione had both been knighted for their art, and our master of brush and sword sought no less.) His portrait of the Maltese Grand Master (Louvre) gained him the coveted knighthood in 1608, a year after his arrival on the fortress island.
For the pro-cathedral of St. John (patron saint of the Maltese knights) in La Valetta, he painted the saint’s murky, yet dramatically spotlit dungeon scene, the grim finale of the Baptist’s life.
The somber, subterranean space opens up around the clustered group of protagonists: the executioner, about to sever the almost decapitated head with a knife, his sword lying on the ground, the jailer pointing to the platter held by Salome to receive John’s head, her perverse wish granted. Only an anonymous old woman (Salome’s attendant?) reacts with due horror, clasping her head, while in the background two prisoners, detached spectators, look on. This is the only painting Caravaggio signed--where? in the crimson drops of the baptist’s blood! (“All my sins are mortal,” he was quoted as saying--a confession here writ in blood.) Despite the horror, an airless silence permeates the scene. For this painting, Caravaggio was given a gold chain, two slaves and other rewards--a month after becoming a knight. But such honors failed to temper his impetuosity and he soon landed in a dungeon himself after insulting a noble knight. He escaped down ropes in the dead of night, and fled by boat to Sicily (no doubt with the tacit compliance of the Grand Master--an escape from that fortress would otherwise have foiled a Houdini).
In Syracuse he met up with his former companion Mario Minnitti, who helped secure the commission to paint The Burial of St. Lucy for the church of Santa Lucia, over her grave. The grieving figures recede even further into cavernous, silent space, as the pitiful Early Christian martyr lies stretched out, her throat cut, awaiting burial by two burly, gravediggers who frame the saint--even the presiding bishop is relegated to the background, the focal point--with sole spash of color, always red--given to that mournful young man, with hands clasped, like a young St. John at the foot of the Cross.
This final darkening and resonant spaciousness of the late Caravaggio was taken even further in his next major commission, for the church of the Padri Crociferi in Messina.
The subject is appropriate to an order devoted to caring for the sick; Christ is shown, as in the Calling of Matthew, with the outstretched arm from Michelangelo’s Creation of Man, as he calls for Lazarus to life from the grave. Lazarus, suspended between death and life, the skull and the light, with outstretched arms like a crucifix, surely are a reference to Crociferi or Crossbearing Fathers, and also to the original Crucifixion on which mankind’s resurrection ultimately hangs. Perhaps here, as in no other work, Caravaggio captures the tension between death and life, the corruptible body and the divine spirit, between his darker nature and the light he sought--like one of the more tortured characters of Graham Greene, “the unlucky ones who believe,” as Greene puts it. Caravaggio’s late religious works share with those of the great 20th-century Catholic novelist a profound sense that the line between salvation and damnation is often precariously faint and thin, and rarely drawn straight.
Before leaving Sicily for Naples, he painted two touching nativities, one for Messina, the second for Palermo (it was stolen in 1969): both stress the simple and stark humility (from the Latin word for earth, humus) of the Savior’s birth in earthen tones of brown. A sadness, couple with awe, pervades the two, especially the second--despite the intrusive angel announcing God’s glory in gesture and Latin translation--Caravaggio’s late revival of the traditional conflation of birth and death, of Nativity and Pietà, in the Mary’s poignant prescience of her newborn’s fate.
Back in Naples, in October 1609, Caravaggio was badly beaten by his enemies (perhaps comrades of the offended knight--he had been expelled from the order a year earlier). His face was slashed and badly disfigured, but he recovered and remained in Naples for another nine months, before receiving word that a complete pardon was forthcoming from the pope. En route to Rome, he landed at Palo, but was suddenly--for reasons unknown-- imprisoned for two days, while his boat sailed on to Porto Ercole with all his belongings. In furious desperation he chased after it along the burning sand, under the merciless July sun. Finally, Baglione records in his biography, “he came to a place where he was put to bed with a raging fever; and so,” his rival concludes, “without the aid of God or man, in a few days he died, as miserably as he had lived.” He was a few months short of his 39th birthday.
Like his earliest paintings, Caravaggio’s final work remains shrouded. One compelling candidate--along with the more recently discovered Martyrdom of St Ursula and the Denial of Peter--may be the Borghese David; though dated by some scholars to just after his exile from Rome, in 1606, it has more persuasively been relegated to his last year--a last testament, so to speak. Whichever its date, it was most likely intended as a painted plea by the fugitive painter to Cardinal Borghese for a papal pardon, and thus it offers a fitting if paradoxical work on which to conclude.
David stands holding in one hand the drawn sword with which he has severed the head of the defeated giant Goliath. Here we confront Caravaggio’s last,. and most tragic, self-portrait--held in David’s extended left hand as he gazes down at the head--with what? Regret? Pity? Compassion? A traditional prefiguration (as well as ancestor) of Christ, David--posed like a figure of Justice with sword and scales--evokes the Lord of the Last Judgment. How far we have come from the other Michelangelo’s David, that proud embodiment of adolescent virility and virtue.
Yet even here there is final, far more profound and confessional link between the two Michelangelos: for this gruesome self-portrait of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio recalls Michelangelo Buonarrotti’s own late--and tragic--self-portrait on the flayed skin of the martyred St. Bartholomew in the Last Judgment. Perhaps Caravaggio, having paid a terrible earthly price for his dark side and unsheathed sword, could yet through his brush express a faint hope of finding, in that final judgment, absolution and light.
Charles Scribner III
DAI / Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut
Heidelberg, 4 November 2010