Action fills the frame as Jesus, off center, accepts his fate with a downcast gaze. His parted lips seem to sigh in resignation. Judas still grips his master in an embrace of love and betrayal, his robes flowing in the furry of action as Roman soldiers rush onto the scene in a final decisive movement, confirming the crushing blow of Judas' deceit. A lantern, held by a likeness of the artist, casts a dramatic, harsh light that lays solidly, uncompromisingly, against thick shadows and illuminates the scene. It is an image of dread and despair where each figure is wrapped in their own gloom, their faces illuminated in the divine love of God but their hearts awash with the faults of humanity.
Appropriately titled “The Taking of the Christ,” this painting represents the mystery of the artist Caravaggio and the way he has captivated even the most contemporary of audiences; this is noted particularly by the fact that it went missing some centuries ago and has only recently been rediscovered with great enthusiasm and debate. The urge to find the hidden treasures that Caravaggio has left behind is certainly a wide-reaching result of his talent. Although little was known about his personal life—including his death—his paintings have revealed the desires and morbid fascination within society's heart. His images have been at the center of controversy during his time and during contemporary times as well. As a known murderer and a convicted felon, his life certainly reflected the violence and sensuality inherent in his work. Caravaggio's life is peppered with violent outbreaks, altercations with the law, and a strong willingness to subvert the accepted ideals of society, all of which directly influenced his art style.
Born in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was immediately thrust into a perilous world. Just a week after his birth, a battle broke out and Turkish invaders were driven out of Christendom with devastating slaughter on both sides. When he was just six years old, the bubonic plague was responsible for the death of nearly every man in his family, including his father. He grew up with a disrespectful and aggressive attitude. He roamed the streets in search of trouble, living by the motto nec spe, nec metu, often translated as “without hope, without fear.” He was frequently accused of being a heretic, as he went about questioning the validity of Christianity. There is one story in particular that describes Caravaggio refusing holy water on the grounds that it was only good for venial sins. He attested that his sins were all mortal.1 It was this brave thinking that set him apart from his contemporaries, and it was this rebellious desire that gives his work the tension that unnerves its audiences.
The art that was being produced during Caravaggio's lifetime may seem contrived in contrast to Caravaggio's works. As one of the foundational figures of Baroque, Caravaggio was learning his craft in the midst of Mannerism, a style classified by “spatial incongruity and excessive elongation of the human figure”2. Additionally, Mannerism is a style dedicated to harmony and the naturalism established by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. However, Caravaggio quickly emerged as a unique painter and found a home in a newly developing movement called Baroque. Indeed, it would seem that Caravaggio was caught “between an increasingly degenerate Mannerism and the sumptuosity of nascent Baroque”3.
Baroque is a style that utilizes exaggerated motion and extreme lighting techniques to create tension and drama. Unlike their predecessors, Baroque artists chose a decisive moment—the height of action—to portray. Caravaggio, in particular, often utilized shallow theatrical space. This technique pushed the actions of the image into the viewer's personal space. Art during this time took a sharp turn from the rational, balanced craft of the Renaissance. Its purpose was not to inform, but to excite emotion: to put the audience in the same emotional context as the figures that are portrayed so elegantly on the canvas. The stories take place in the space and time of the viewer and such a brash invasion is what captivates audiences still. Even more unusual was the turn away from iconography. Details in a Baroque painting are simple and easy to understand. The speed with which a viewer can read and understand the implications of the figures in such a painting leaves more room for the raw, emotional tension to build, as it becomes the most prevalent thing to gain from the experience.
Nevertheless, Baroque artists certainly approached their pieces with the same practiced technique of painters before them. Preliminary studies and sketches were standard. However, Caravaggio preferred to avoid sketches and go straight to the canvas, often carving his drawings in wet oil paint with the other end of a brush. His unwillingness to plan, to contemplate fully his choices, leads to a freshness of his figures or a barely discernible distortion: he has not toiled endlessly on the perfect equation of the movement and so it appears, spontaneous and loose, as a consequence of its context. The technique and the process mimics the tension of the subject matter and only serves to enhance it for the viewer.
This technique may have possibly derived from Caravaggio's constant, necessary travels. He was one of those rare painters who were famous during their lifetime, but it was his altercations with the law that inflated his name. He was known as a murderer and sentenced to death in Rome. He fled and was forced to live on the run, painting with the ever persistent threat of capture quickening his brush strokes. He was pursued by enemies and suffered from much grief and torment during this time. As famed Caravaggio expert, Sir Denis Mahon, believed, “studying the work of an artist […] could penetrate the depths of that man's mind”.4 His paintings reveal a profound self-knowledge which can best be seen in “David With the Head of Goliath.” It is in this painting that we see a somber David dangling the dark, bleeding, severed head of Goliath, who bears an unmistakable resemblance to the artist. It was painted just after he was sentenced to death for murder and his choice to portray himself as a slain villain is certainly representative of his self-awareness. The painting is an admission that he understood, and accepted, the ramifications of his actions, but he was overcome with a sense of self-preservation that outweighed his guilt. He acknowledges the duality of humanity and, through his actions, does not attempt to suppress either side.
Indeed, Caravaggio relies on opposites just as much in his painting technique as he does within his life. From the play between light and dark, to the juxtaposition of religious scenes with immoral or contradictory components, Caravaggio's art was not always supported. “Death of a Virgin,” for example, was commissioned by a Vatican law official for his family chapel, but was refused by the clergy who claimed it unworthy. Not only was it brutal and unforgivably realistic, the model for Madonna was a well-known prostitute, with which Caravaggio had a romantic attachment. The title seems significant when paired with this fact, for it figuratively equates to the model's loss of innocence due to her profession, irregardless of pretense. It was a secretly ironic statement, perhaps, that soon became widely-known when the courtesan's face was recognized easily.
Additionally, Caravaggio's association with prostitutes is only one example of the sexual nature, of his paintings. His only known assistant was a 12 year-old boy named Cecco, who can be seen growing up through the progression of Caravaggio's paintings. He is seen in multiple paintings, as a youthful laughing boy to a somber David, clutching Goliath's bleeding head. However in “Boy with a Basket of Fruit,” he becomes the epitome of opposites: his pose is enticingly provocative but as he withdraws his basket of fruit, he remains disinterested. His pose takes “the otherwise neutral unreadability of the eye into a willful reticence, as if we were being solicited by a desire determined to remain hidden”5. The tension created by the figure's reluctance could be representative of Caravaggio's tension within himself. The same self-knowledge that can be viewed in “David With the Head of Goliath” is just as prevalent in this painting, only the tone of it is not so guilt-ridden. Although Caravaggio acknowledges his perversity and attempts to hide it, he does not apologize—and perhaps he is simply expressing his love in the only way he knows how.
The mysterious nature of Caravaggio is further elevated by the circumstances surrounding his death. As an elusive figure during his time, it has taken researchers and archaeologists centuries to unwrap the mystery and track down his remains. Further still, it has taken just as long to locate his death certificate. His final resting place was never recorded and with the lack of information, theories arose, ranging from malaria, to syphilis, to sunstroke, or even to a plot orchestrated by the Knights of Malta with the pope's support.
In conclusion, with the persistence of opposition in Caravaggio's paintings, there sometimes seems as if there are two people within his body: “One vain, uncontrollably aggressive, ever ready to start violent escapades; the other an authentic artist, scorning publicity and the aesthetically 'in'”.6 Torn between religion and aggression, Caravaggio lived an unstable life. Beginning with the loss of family members after an outbreak of the bubonic plague, he was thrust into a troubled world of uncertainty and anger, but these emotions propelled him to paint. His paintings create a tension within the viewer that resonates to this day.
* * *
1Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
2"Mannerism-Defintion." Merriam-Webster . http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mannerism.
3Spurling, Hilary. "The Criminal Genius of Caravaggio." NY Times. The Criminal Genius of Caravaggio.
4Harr, Jonathan. The Lost Painting. Random House, 2005. 411.
5Bersani, Leo, & Dutoit, Ulysse. "Caravaggio's Secrets." NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bersani-caravaggio.html.
6Sohm, Philip. 2002. "Caravaggio's Deaths." The Art Bulletin 84, no. 3: 449-68. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed September 30, 2011).
* * *
2011. "Crazy for Caravaggio." Wilson Quarterly 35, no. 2: 80-81. Art & Architecture Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed September 30, 2011).
Alfandari , Agnès. "Death of a Virgin." Louvre. http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT<>cnt_id=10134198673225132&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE<>cnt_id=10134198673225132&FOLDER<>folder_id=9852723696500816&baseIndex=88&bmLocale=en (accessed November 11, 2011).
Bersani, Leo, & Dutoit, Ulysse. "Caravaggio's Secrets." NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bersani-caravaggio.html (accessed November 11, 2011).
"Ducats for Caravaggio." The Economist . http://www.economist.com/node/17730444 (accessed September 30, 2011).
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. (accessed November 11, 2011).
Harr, Jonathan. The Lost Painting. Random House, 2005. (accessed December 15, 2011).
"Mannerism-Defintion." Merriam-Webster . http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mannerism (accessed November 10, 2011).
Pacelli, Vincenzo. "New Documents Concerning Caravaggio in Naples." The Burlington Magazine. http://www.jstor.org/stable/879030 (accessed September 30, 2011).
Shoham, S. Giora. "Caravaggio: The Violent Enlightenment." Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 6 (1999): 67-82.
Sohm, Philip. 2002. "Caravaggio's Deaths." The Art Bulletin 84, no. 3: 449-68. Art Full Text, WilsonWeb (accessed September 30, 2011).
Spurling, Hilary. "The Criminal Genius of Caravaggio." NY Times. The Criminal Genius of Caravaggio (accessed November 10, 2011).
Willey, David. "Caravaggio's crimes exposed in Rome's police files." BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12497978 (accessed September 30, 2011).