Caravaggio has been said to have put the oscuro (shadow) into chiaroscuro, an existing technique of employing shadow and light that he elevated to the dominant stylistic element. Caravaggio combined this method with the dramatic realism of his figures, always created from live models, to establish himself as one of the leading artists of his time, beginning in the late 1500s. The passion of his art ignited from a man of hot passions—violence, temper, provocations—that often got him into trouble. And as I came across his works around the world, I became more and more fascinated by his art and his unruly life.
Caravaggio’s vision sometimes clashed with that of his patrons and those who commissioned him for paintings who abominated his work and didn’t care for his naturalistic portrayals of saintly figures (some based on prostitute models he used, for shame!), or who viewed him as a shady character. His temper ignited brawls, one of the earliest of which resulted in a murder that forced him to flee from Rome to Naples. Then the scapegrace headed to Malta, where was made a Knight of St. John, arrested by that same group, and tossed out of the knighthood all within one year. Caravaggio fled next to Sicily and, hoping to receive a papal pardon for his original sentence, returned to mainland Italy, where, in Naples, the irascible artist found himself in yet another brawl during which his face was disfigured.
After he died in 1610 at age 38 under mysterious circumstances on his way to Rome (officially, he died from a fever, but everything from murder to lead poisoning to syphilis has been suggested), Caravaggio faded from the pantheon of esteemed artists. Having died intestate and with no wife, no known children, and no atelier of his own to carry on his philosophies and sensibilities, and largely considered an erratic outlaw, Caravaggio and his reputation ebbed rapidly. It wasn’t until the 20th century when a couple of art critics and historians resurrected Caravaggio’s name, stating emphatically that without him, artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt wouldn’t have existed and that, after Michelangelo, he was the Italian painter who exercised the greatest influence.
For me, I like everything about him. I’m intrigued by his outrageous lifestyle that I can’t even imagine, and I’m astounded by his talent, the way his paintings introduced a radical new level of dramatic intensity that captures pivotal moments as well as my full attention. Even the way his name rolls off my tongue appeals to me. Of the fewer than 100 of his paintings that are known to exist, these are my favorites.
#1 The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta)
This was the painting that secured Caravaggio’s place as one my favorite artists and whose tumultuous life began to beguile me. Completed in 1608 and located in the oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches in Valletta, Malta, this was Caravaggio’s largest altarpiece ever completed, measuring 12’ x 17’. As soon as I entered the oratory, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist demanded my attention. The scene is graphic and arresting, populated by life-size figures. St. John, wearing a bright red garment and with his throat already slit and spilling blood, lies prone on the ground, hands bound behind his back, on the verge of being beheaded by the brute standing over him, who is about to pull him up by his hair and brandishing the dagger that will do the deed. Next to him stands the prison warden, pointing emotionlessly to the golden platter where the executioner should place the severed head, held by the impassive Salome, who doesn’t seem to be remotely disturbed by the murder occurring in front of her. Only the elderly woman shows a human response, shutting her eyes and cradling her head with her hands in woe and to block out the sounds of the whole senseless event. In the background, two men behind a barred window space look intently at the scene. And behind the main grouping, cast in foreboding shadow, an arch with prominent quoins grants entry to the prison, with the gate deeper behind it. Aside from its brilliance, this painting is notable for two curiosities. First, it was the only painting Caravaggio ever signed, and he signed it “f. MichelAn” directly below the puddle of blood (written in the viscid liquid) spilling from the saint’s neck. The signature poses a mystery: Does the “f” mean “fra,” as in brother, in reference to his status as a Knight of Malta, or is it short for the Latin “facit,” meaning “made”? Second, it was in this very chapel where Caravaggio was inducted into the Order of St. John and became a Knight of Malta—and then, in front of this very painting, where he was defrocked in absentia as a “foul and rotten member” the very same year as his induction, after he escaped from prison following his arrest for injuring a Knight (and imprisonment by his own fellow Knights) and fled the island. The irony of that dishonor is an irresistible historical event that neatly encapsulates the peaks and troughs of Caravaggio’s compelling life.
#2 Judith and Holofernes (National Gallery of Antique Art, Barberini Palace, Rome, Italy)
Inside the gorgeous 17th-century Barberini Palace, I found Rome’s main national collection of older paintings. One of the most impressive is Caravaggio’s Judith and Holofernes, depicting another decapitation and completed in 1599. Here, the master presents the climactic moment of the Bible story in which Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes. In the prequel to this scene, Judith had seduced Holofernes and, after plying him with drink, arrived at his tent and prays to God for strength. She seizes him by the hair and runs her sword through his throat as she cuts off his head, blood powerfully spurting out (matching the deep red of the theatrical curtain in the background), which she would later present to the people of Israel as proof of their liberation. Caravaggio adds heightened drama to the scene with his play of contrasts. For starters, on the surface, the very feminine Judith doesn’t seem like much of a match for the powerfully built Holofernes. But here the roles are reversed: A very determined-looking Judith gains the upper hand against him, with his body convulsed, seconds away from his death, and a look of both pain and shock on his face. She keeps her distasteful but necessary action literally at arm’s length, perhaps to distance herself as much as possible from the demanding deed she must perform to save the Israelites (or, perhaps, to keep her victim’s blood from splattering all over her frock). Judith receives a second point of contrast vis-à-vis her maid. Caravaggio heightens Judith’s beauty and charms by placing Abra, Judith’s old, haggard, unattractive maid, directly beside her, matter-of-factly holding a dark sack in which to place Holofernes’ severed head. Whereas Caravaggio very often employed chiaroscuro—contrasts of light and darkness—to achieve works of brilliance, here he employed those of age and physiques to achieve the very same thing.
#3 Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Doria Pamphilj Palace, Rome, Italy)
The Doria Pamphilj Palace was one of the last places I visited after 10 days in Rome. In retrospect, it should have been one of the first—it’s considered the largest palace in Rome still privately owned, and it houses the spectacular Doria Pamphilj Gallery, which includes paintings, furniture, and statuary collected from the 16th century on, including Caravaggio’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt, from 1597. As opposed to my two favorite works, this painting, one of his earliest religious pieces and one of the few in which he included a landscape, is peaceful. In this post-Nativity scene, the Holy Family have fled from Bethlehem into Egypt after being warned that Herod the Great wanted to kill the newborn upstart. Here, the Holy Family is not the focus, but rather the angel, with back turned toward the viewer and sporting dark gray wings while playing a violin to the sheet music held by Joseph. Mary and Jesus have been lulled to sleep in silent intimacy by the angel’s music. The angel has no precedents in the Biblical passage about or artistic representations of the Flight to Egypt and is a completely novel invention by Caravaggio. It’s a curiosity, as is the scrolled-up paper peeking out of the bottle in the basket by Joseph’s feet, leaving me to wonder exactly what Joseph was toting around with him.
#4 The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (Church of St. Louis of the French, Rome, Italy)
Caravaggio received his first public commission for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of St. Louis of the French: two side paintings depicting scenes from the life of St. Matthew. Like most of his religious art, one of them, the corybantic The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, from 1600, is highly dramatic. A well-built executioner in a loincloth centers the canvas. He grabs Matthew’s wrist, seemingly shouting at him and ready to deal the death blow with his sword. Matthew himself is already on the ground, clad in liturgical robes. Behind them is the altar where Matthew was celebrating Mass just moments before. Of the other dozen or so other figures, some are already fleeing the gruesome scene, particularly the boy on the right, who truly looks horrified. Amid all this chaos, a winged angel descends from a cloud, apparently in the midst of an acrobatic move, extending a palm frond, the sign of martyrdom. There’s a bit of ambiguity here: Matthew’s hand is extended upward, toward the palm. Is he reaching for it, welcoming his martyrdom, or is it simply the position of his hand held at the wrist by the executioner, or is the executioner trying to prevent him from receiving the symbol? Only Caravaggio could tell us, especially because he inserted himself into this painting—he’s the figure closest to the executioner’s right shoulder. The self-portrait supports his notion of his role as a history painter whereby he himself becomes a witness to the event and, as such, its privileged interpreter.
#5 The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (Church of St. Louis of the French, Rome, Italy)
The Contarelli Chapel in the Church of St. Louis of the French also houses an altarpiece that Caravaggio completed in 1602—a delay of over a year because his first attempt was rejected by the priests, claiming that the outré figure of Matthew, sitting with his legs crossed and bare feet rudely exposed to the public, did not have the decorum or the aspect of the saint. His second attempt at The Inspiration of Saint Matthew keeps Matthew bare-footed, but not as prominently. The haloed saint is hunched over a writing table, resting one knee on a bench, pen in hand as he urgently writes down his gospel, as if he has just rushed to the table to get everything down on paper. His inspiration comes from the curly-haired angel above him, wrapped in a twisting, flowing white sheet, and using his fingers to tick off important points with his fingers. When his paintings in this chapel were unveiled, Caravaggio immediately became a superstar in the Roman art world, igniting a legacy that still runs strong 400 years later.
- Madonna di Loreto (1605; Basilica of St. Augustine, Rome, Italy)
- The Fortune Teller (1596; Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy)
- Narcissus (1598; National Gallery of Antique Art, Barberini Palace, Rome, Italy)
- The Musicians (1592; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York)
- Mary Magdalene (1596; Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Doria Pamphilj Palace, Rome, Italy)
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