Monday, June 06, 2005

My Favourite Caravaggios...

In my comments box I am asked by Bryan Jerabek what my favourite Caravaggio is. Well, there is one Caravaggio I like more than any other, but I'm also going to mention (in no particular order) 3 other Caravaggios I really like, as well as mentioning one or two I don't find appealing at all.
In the past 12 months I've met two fellow-bloggers here in Rome and went Caravaggio-spotting with both of them. Romy mentioned that she liked Caravaggio (and I'd like to hear her thoughts as to why) and so during her brief stay in Rome I hit the maximum number of Caravaggios in the minimum time by bringing her to the three Caravaggios in the St Matthew (Contarelli) Chapel in S.Luigi dei Francesi followed by a flying visit to the Church of S.Agostino (a mere 5 minute walk away) to see the Madonna of the Pilgrims. Lauren is decidedly less of a Caravaggio fan and as she spent several months in Rome I made her suffer by showing her (at one time or another) pretty much every Roman Church with a Caravaggio in it, as well as the Galleria Borghese which has quite a collection of Caravaggios.
Anyway, why do I like Caravaggio? I suppose he's most famous for his 'realistic' protrayal of religious figures. We hear stories of him getting in trouble for presenting apostles with dirty fingernails or sitting with their legs crossed. That's not actually a huge factor in my appreciation of Caravaggio - I actually prefer some of his less 'realistic' stuff. What I like about him is his talent for compostion, for arranging the figures in a thought-provoking and dramatic fashion. He protrays emotions very well and in the main his pictures are very dramatic and evocative.
Anyhow, without further ado, I present four Caravaggios I really like...
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt at the Galleria Doria-Pamphili in Rome.
I just adore this work. I think Lauren once told me that she liked this picture because it didn't look like a Caravaggio at all. She has a point - it's set in a kind of magical world and could hardly be called grittily realistic. A musician-angel stands before St Joseph who holds sheet music (one can actually play the tune) whilst the Virgin Mary dozes with the sleeping Child Jesus in her arms. It's an early work, but I think there are aspects of the later (more controversial) Caravaggio in the weary face of St Joseph. It's a curious and very appealing mix of the idealistic (the landscape, the angel) and the realistic (the authenticity of Joseph's fatigue and the figure of the sleeping Mother and Child).
The Taking of Christ at the Irish National Gallery in Dublin.
A relatively recent discovery of a 'lost' Caravaggio. Some scholars say that it's a copy of another Caravaggio, albeit a copy painted by the artist himself. This, to my mind, is the finest depiction of Judas's betrayal of Christ ever painted. Look at the anguished resignation in the face and hands of Christ. The composition is simply perfect - note how the cloak of the fleeing disciple frames the central action. See how the themes of light and darkness are used - one could write a theological dissertation about it. (The figure holding the lantern is a self portrait of Caravaggio himself; it's significant that the light shines back on him rather than illuminating the central scene which is lit from another source.) I could go on...
The Supper at Emmaus at the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan.
I know there's a more famous one in London, but I prefer the Milanese Supper. The emotions of the watchers are much more restrained and the face of Christ more intense. I think the disciples are just on the cusp of realising what's going on, whilst the inn-keeper and his wife are somehow slightly anxious - instictively they know that this is no ordinary guest. The use of light is interesting - Christ's face is half illuminated, almost like a half-moon. One gets the impression of a gradual unveiling of his identity. Interestingly, the face of the inn-keeper and his wife seem to be disproportionately illuminated - I'm not quite sure what the point of that is, but it certainly makes for a more interesting composition.
My Favourite Caravaggio
St Jerome at the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
I'm not sure why, but I've always had a particular attraction to depcitions of St Jerome. There's something fascinating about the hardened scholar-ascetic wrapped in his red (Cardinal's!) cloak. I suppose he's the epitome of a particular type of service to the Church - a life poured out in the pursuit of learning for the sake of his brethern. He's not the most pastoral of figures, and I think this argumentative and agressive old biblicist is a helpful reminder that not all saints are cuddly people-persons and the scholar has a role to play in the sanctification of God's people too. (If Jerome could become a saint, there's hope for all of us!)
Anyway, here we have the scholar in the midst of his labours - there's no unnecessary comfort in the cell - just a hard chair, his books and the memento mori of the skull which keeps the scholar's labour in perspective. This emaciated old man has evidently given his life for learning and I like to think that the parallelism between Jerome's bald pate and the skull is suggestive not only of his personal mortality but also of the sacrificial nature of his life's labours.
Appendix 1: Caravaggios I don't like
The Madonna dei Palafrenieri at the Galleria Borghese.
It is said that the unflattering depiction of St Anne led to the original owners disposing of the painting. I find the whole thing very unappealing, although the fact that the Child Jesus and Our Lady crush the serpent simultaniously is an ingenious theological device.
Medusa at the Uffizi in Florence.
I'm not impressed - 'nuff said. ;)
Appendix 2: Caravaggio's Women
I've previously mentioned that my lack of enthusiasm for the pre-Rephaelites is based in part on the fact that I don't think they were particularly good at painting women. I think Caravaggio is the opposite - I think he had a particular talent for painting women and female emotions. I therefore present a few of my favourite Caravaggio women - the sharp-eyed among you will notice that he repeatedly used the same models.
A surprisingly chastely dressed Magdalene repents of her vanity. (BTW, note the wonderfully painted dress and the discarded jewels next to the jar of oil...)
The same model (I think) as Our Lady with the Child Jesus - a beautiful domestic scene.
St Catherine of Alexandria.
Judith and Holofernes - look at a close-up of Judith's face - I think he's caught a wonderful combination of concentration, determination and disgust. Judith's maid shows that it's not just pretty young women he could paint.
The same point could be made about this touching depiction of Our Lady as she beholds the deposition of Christ.

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