Caravaggio (1571-1610)

Michelangelo Merisi born in Caravaggio.

He was successful, being courted by the Church, but all through the stream of success he was embroiled in a litany of repeated violence.

His life is well documented in police records.

He fought a duel, killed a man, fled Rome, joined the Knights of Malta, insulted a superior, was jailed, escaped, received a papal pardon and died of a malignant fever while returning to Rome.

Today he is one of the foremost Baroque artists, arguably the finest painter of his time, certainly a painter who communicates with the modern viewer. But he was not embraced until the 1950s by the art critics.

The Mystery of the Conversion of Saint Paul and The Martyrdom of Saint Peter are in the Cerasi family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del’ Popolo 1601 in Rome.

His paintings were contentious.

Ruskin the great English art critic of the nineteenth century wrote that Caravaggio fed “upon horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin” and he was “among the worshippers of the depraved.”

Robert Hughes a foremost critic of today wrote:

“One of the grandest visionary painters, a man obsessed by the dense reality of objects in the world and by the piercing epiphanies of a faith”

Bernard Berenson, art critic extraordinaire, a legend of the 1940s and 1950s:

“he was quick tempered and bad tempered, intolerant, envious, jealous, spiteful, quarrelsome, a street brawler, a homicide and perhaps a homosexual”

Why the furore?

He painted directly on canvas without elaborate planning and preparatory drawing.  Not a single drawing exists today. In 1600 there were two conventions for artists. Art should represent ideal beauty, perfect proportion and classical decorum. Also a finished canvas should rely on many preparatory drawings.

However, he really turned the art world upside down by placing in centre stage saints and martyrs as images of the poor, the labourer, real women and men on earth. This runs against the convention of the time. There are no cherubs, no delicate rendition of ethical religious tranquility, populated by figures who we have never met.

The Cerasi Chapel has two paintings opposite each other, hard to see unless you put money in a light box which illuminates the scene. Then you peer soon the light will click loud and sight is off. So you pay again.

The Conversion of St. PaulOne panel is of The Conversion of St. Paul which was a popular theme for artists of the Renaissance and after.

Saul, a soldier on the way to Damascus to continue his persecution of Christians, was struck by a blinding light. He fell off his horse to the ground and saw a vision of Jesus and became the Disciple Paul.

The Conversion of Paul is still frozen in a camera flash, an ordinary horse methodically side stepping to avoid the splayed Paul, whumped on his back, arms in a “V” subject to the quizzical look of the horse’s attendant. All very natural yet a sense of electric shock in Paul. The Conversation is swarming in Paul’s head, miles away.

Other renditions portray crowds, as Saul was part of a march, a blinding light, horses rearing, cowering soldiers and perhaps an image of Christ. In short, chaos.  (See for instance Brughel’s Conversion of St Paul in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.)

As Francine Prose puts it:

“Caravaggio has given us a way to imagine that what we are being shown is a moment of eternity, a frozen glimpse of forever.”

The colour of the horse is difficult to capture in words, a subtle confluence of browns, greys, creams and running black — a dappled dreamy off-brown, but the horse’s silky shanks are etched in my memory.

The Martyrdom of Saint PeterThe Martyrdom of Saint Peter where he is crucified upside down is a portrait of strain and awkward discomfort, a lovely image midst three sinewy workmen methodically doing their job, unconcerned about Peter — just unconcerned. They are merely doing a job with their heaving, all in the order of a quick and methodical execution. One can feel the workmen spit in their hands while heaving to the menial task of nailing Peter’s hands and feet.

St. Peter, dirty feet, a weighted doughty power, straining up.

Peter is all awkward, aggressive yet looking to some far off place where he can escape this excruciating torture. He is alone, at the end of his life yet looking both past and forward. How can an artist capture such an elusive concept with mere paint?

Francine Prose noted:

“Here what he’s discovering is the affect that can be achieved by focussing our attention on the mindless menial labour involved in martyrdom and its aftermath.  And here for the first time he boldly insists on the true appearance transcribed from life of the callused hands and rugged backs of the labourers who carry out the killing of those whom the powerful want silenced.” (p. 77)

As Paul Johnson says:

“What in effect Caravaggio is doing systematically and deliberately, for the first time in the history of art, is destroying the space between the event in the painting and the people looking at it … What then must it have been like in the early seventeenth century, for people who had never come across anything approaching this blast of actuality, to be brought face to face with a re-enactment of sacred events in two dimensions?”

Artists were shocked and stimulated by him.

I go again to visit all the Roman Caravaggios in September, 2008.  The best are in this church.

There is a problem that begins to niggle.  t. Peter has a huge rusty nail through his left hand and I assume beyond my vision a corresponding dirty spike through his right palm plus one through each foot. Yikes! I know he is a martyr and all that but surely he should be shrieking himself silly and his effort to roll up must tear his right hand. Where’s the pain?

Peter’s visage is either, as one of my friends observes, “he’s angry,” her husband says, “he’s anguished” (I certainly hope so.)

I see Peter saying, “Oh Lord, what have I got myself into?” A resignation surrounded by carpenters’ hands and filthy feet.

Is this painting so improbable that it shouldn’t be revered?

My friends are critical of the Conversion of Paul painting.  This, of course, is one of the elastic delights of our observation — others disagree and they may well be right. They say, “What’s all this about??  A pretty horse perhaps but a guy is just lying on the ground not portraying much of anything no less the fervour of a religious conversation. He’s just sort of asleep.”

Maybe I’m in love with the coco colour of the pinto horse’s flank, the white of the horse’s shank and shoulder setting off the creamy chocolate syrup of the sleek belly, as well as the sense of quiet stillness with the attendant caring for the horse, a sensible thing, so it doesn’t skitter and trample Paul. The details of the attendant’s huge hand on the horse’s bit, his veined legs, bigger than the horse’s — radiating a sense of solid practical command of the situation. No stamping, rearing horses here — due to the focussed purpose of a trainer doing his primary job.

So what, Saul is now Paul? Men of labour midst miracles.

Robert Hughes a foremost critic of today
(Horizon, Summer 1975)
American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc. a subsidiary of McGraw Hill

Francine Prose
Caravaggio Painter of Miracles
in Eminent Lives Series
Harper Collins 2005

Paul Johnson
The History of Art