Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on 29 September 1571 (died 1610), but it was not until 1600 that he burst upon the Roman art scene and Rome society in general. He was the Mickey Rourke of his day; admired, criticized, enigmatic, rebellious, and dangerous. He was often his own worst enemy but also a truly divine artist.
A Troubled Life and a Unique Approach to Art
Caravaggio’s adult life reads like a police record; a man who was quick-tempered with a quarrelsome nature who was often in trouble with the law and the church. History often portrays those artists who create new ways of seeing as radical, different from the norm, and Caravaggio certainly was that kind of Italian painter.
He cared little for the conventional pictorial genres of his time, and it’s true to say that whilst other artists of his day, like Carracci, drew their influences from the ideals of antiquity and the great works of the High Renaissance, Caravaggio’s art followed no particular models.
The Innovator of Dramatic Realism
His inspiration came from his intense study and observations of nature that, included the study of people going about their day-to-day business. Caravaggio didn’t just imitate nature, but by bringing models into his studio and setting them among the props he had collected, he was able to create a sort of theatrical stage setting, and he was its director.
In these environments, he developed a more exaggerated use of chiaroscuro, heightening the effects of shadows and highlights to create a new realism in painting. His use of colour was stark, his use of light dramatic, but together these elements opened up a visual truth that had not been seen before.
Caravaggio’s paintings breathed life into many a biblical scene.
The Calling of St. Matthew
The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600), which can be viewed in the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of S. Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, is a masterly example of Caravaggio’s art of placing such a well-known story from the scriptures into a contemporary, everyday scene, in this case, a local tavern or inn.
The power of the composition lies in the fact that Caravaggio has us focused on the middle to foreground, where the main characters, Peter and Christ, to the right, having just entered the room and a surprised if not startled Matthew slightly to the left and on the same diagonal, makeup nearly all of the visual dialogue in this painting.
The artist always focuses our attention on the figures, the actors in Caravaggio’s plays of storytelling. He showed little interest in background landscapes and often left the viewer at a loss as to the setting of a scene.
A strong shaft of light that spills into the room above the head of Christ helps direct our gaze towards Matthew, as does the outstretched right arm of Christ, which reminds this writer very much of the arm of God in The Creation of Man from the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo.
The Madonna and Child with St. Anne
The Madonna and Child with St. Anne (1605-1606) in the Galleria Borghese is a later work by Caravaggio and clearly not one of his more successful compositions.
In fact, more than any of his previous paintings, this must have been shocking to many contemporary viewers. The allegory was well known and shows the Virgin, with the aid of her son, stomping on a serpent, the symbol of evil or original sin.
St Anne, whom the painting is intended to honor, is painted as a wrinkled, gnarled old grandmother of a fully naked uncircumcised Jesus. It was a confrontational statement by Caravaggio, as was the ungracious depiction of St. Anne’s face. A further shock must have been the painting of the Virgin Mary’s revealing bodice. Caravaggio’s art, like the man, was provocative.
The Madonna of Loreto
The Madonna of Loreto (1604-1606) can be found in the Church of Sant’Agostino near Piazza Navona in Rome. This is an important painting and so true to Caravaggio’s art and life.
Here the Madonna is portrayed as a beautiful, barefooted woman who, in truth, could have walked any of the streets of Rome that the artist knew well. She carries her child, and only the slightest hint of a halo tells us this baby is holy.
In the foreground, we enjoy the adulation, not of a King or Queen, nor a Pope or a Cardinal but of two simple peasants. One is an old lady with perhaps her elderly son, and Jesus acknowledges them both.
Young, Sick Bacchus
Young, sick Bacchus (1593-1594) in the Galleria Borghese is an insightful and brutally honest portrait of Caravaggio after he had fallen extremely ill and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione. He is said to have done several paintings in thanks to the prior of the hospital for saving his life, but none survived.
This work does, however, and reminds us of an artist that was not only gifted and innovative but imbued all of his works with a visual and social honesty that has placed Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio at the pinnacle of art appreciation today.