Do you know anyone who does not love the work of Caravaggio, born on this date in 1573? Today, we stand before his works dumbfounded by their intensity and psychological insight, probing with our eyes to unlock their secrets like St. Thomas probing the wound in Christ’s side above in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas (above, from 1601-1602). How is it possible that Caravaggio’s work, so influential during his lifetime, fell into obscurity after his death until the early twentieth century? Hard to believe, but true. Even David Hockney’s accusations of Caravaggio “cheating” with a camera obscura can’t break the spell, at least for me, of his paintings’ power.
Caravaggio calls to us from the shadows of history, much like Christ calling St. Matthew to follow him in Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew (above, 1599-1600). The details of Caravaggio’s life remain murky, thanks to his unorthodox lifestyle, frequent travels, and lack of letters or journals. Because of this documentary void, scholars have to rely on the masterpieces he left in his wake and, unfortunately, his frequent run-ins with the law. Simon Schama’s The Power of Art portrayed Caravaggio as a swashbuckling madman, letting his sword do the talking for the most part. In his silence, Caravaggio seems even more timeless, able to slip noiselessly from his generation to ours as easily as the characters in The Calling of St. Matthew slip anachronistically into late 17th century Italian clothing.
Even if Caravaggio “cheated” with painting aids (and I think that’s a huge “if”), there’s no way he could have “cheated” in creating such psychologically astute characters. Figures such as those in The Sacrifice of Isaac (above, from 1601-1602) live and breathe and give life to the old Bible stories—greater sermons than most clerics could possibly present. What an eye Caravaggio must have had to walk to the streets and find the grizzled old men and beautiful yet hardened prostitutes that would become saints and madonnas. When Caravaggio painted the Virgin Mary in his The Death of the Virgin using sketches he had made of a notorious prostitute moldering in the town morgue, he created the understandable stir, but the people couldn’t argue with the results.
One of the highlights of the Vatican Museum’s galleries for me was seeing Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (above, from 1602-1603). Surrounded by contemporary works by the Caravaggisti, those painters from all over Europe who saw and almost instantly imitated Caravaggio’s style, The Entombment stands above all the rest. Not until critics such as Roberto Longhi and Bernard Berenson rediscovered Caravaggio in the early twentieth century did he reclaim his rightful place in the art pantheon. Caravaggio’s work is so intertwined with Catholicism in my mind that I find it hard to believe that he was ever out of fashion. Michelangelo captures the soaring beauty of Catholicism for me, the muscular nudes pointing to the zenith of humanity as a reflection of God’s own image. Caravaggio, on the other hand, remains on the ground, toiling with the sinners and the soiled saints in the shadows, rising up into the light bit by bit, reminding us that for every soaring moment of Michelangeloesque grandeur in Christianity, there are countless moments of earthly pain and struggle as hard and real and, ultimately, as conquerable as the tomb's lid in The Entombment.