Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is one of the most revolutionary figures in art. His original emotionally charged paintings, with their intense naturalism, dramatic lighting and powerful story telling influenced the way artists’ saw the world for centuries.
In fact, so widespread and deep was his influence that 70% of the paintings in the new exhibition Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery were, at one time or another, attributed to the man himself.
His mystique was amplified by his lifestyle – he was a tempestuous man, hard to get along with and when he died, aged just 39, he had been on the run after killing a man.
Everyone thinks they know a Caravaggio. Many see him as the “candlelight painter” thanks to his dark canvasses and brilliant use of lighting effects. And yet he never painted a candle at all.
Here, curator of the exhibition Letizia Treves talks through five key paintings in his career, exploring how he developed and transformed his famous style.
She said: “He paints real people, he paints religious subjects but bringing them into his own time and this is the real fundamental difference between Caravaggio and his contemporaries.”
1. Boy Bitten By Lizard (1592-93)
Still live – fruit and flowers – was really the lowest form of painting. Everyone wanted to be a religious painter, a history painter, a narrative painter, but there was a tradition of still life so it was natural that young Caravaggio would have slotted in to do that. And still life always plays an important part in his early works reaching such a level of refinement.
Caravaggio said still life required as much artistry as painting figures which was a revolutionary thing to say at the time.
He also paints real people, people he knows. Fortune tellers and card players and it’s this new and unusual subject matter that brings him to the attention of wealthy patrons.
The idea of a boy peeling fruit is such a non-subject but he elevates it to be worthy of being painted. In it’s simplest terms it’s an expression of pain and surprise but the lizard, like the snake, also alludes pain hiding behind sensual pleasures. The boy has reached into the forbidden fruit and been bitten.
With this, Caravaggio changes your relationship to painting. You’re no longer just a passive viewer, he involves you. The boy is looking at us for help. He’s in pain. You become involved in the narrative and emotionally – this is something that is very new.
2. The Supper At Emmaus, 1601
This theme of involvement is continued. The basket of fruit looks as if is toppling. Another example is the elbow jutting out. This blurring of the space between the viewer and the painting means you’re immediately drawn in while the truthfulness of the still life means that you believe what you are seeing.
This is a painting of the risen Christ appearing to his two disciples at Emmaus and it’s the moment when he blesses the bread and they recognise him.
The use of light is very theatrical, very dramatic but it’s not just theatre – it always underpins what he’s trying to say. Here it is the light of revelation. The disciples have seen the light. The innkeeper who looks completely oblivious hasn’t. His face is in shadow.
3. The Taking Of Christ, 1602
Judas is betraying Christ with a kiss. The emotional charge of this picture is in those two heads. They are not quite touching so you don’t know if they’re about to kiss or have just kissed. Then your eye comes down and you see Christ’s clasped hands in resignation of his fate.
It’s a violent scene. Whereas The Supper At Emmaus has a stillness to it, in this they’re all being jostled around and it’s made extremely vivid by the cropping – the figures are brought right into the foreground so you’re brought right in front of them. It’s very cinematic.
Caravaggio includes himself holding up a lantern. This is significant. He’s a witness at the event and he’s holding up the light saying ‘I will lead you and you will follow my path, this is the new way painting is going’.
St John The Baptist In The Wilderness, 1603-4
Story-telling is Caravaggio’s greatest legacy. He sometimes blurs the lines between the religious and the profane and this is true of this picture of St John the Baptist.
He’s normally shown as an ascetic saint, rather dishevelled, living on locusts in the wilderness but here we’re shown this amazingly athletic youth brooding. He feels a very contemporary figure, even to us.
But that’s Caravaggio’s way of bringing it into his own time. People today respond to these pictures because you don’t need to know about the story – it’s just an incredibly powerful image. You can’t help but be moved in front of it. It’s astonishingly modern representation.
5. Salome Receives The Head Of John The Baptist, 1620s
This is a very moving picture from his later years. This very stark lighting, the strong chiaroscuro, works well for these intense religious works.
You can also see the stylistic transformation of Caravaggio. He has stripped this picture of the descriptive technique. There’s a much freer use of the brush.
He’s pared it down and there’s much less use of colour – almost monochromatic – and there is a much greater exaggeration of gesture and expression. It’s no less dramatic but it’s a different kind of drama, more contemplative, a deeper sense of emotion.
Then there is the juxtaposition of Salome and the old maid who is grieving, her hands are clasped under her chin. Salome has a very enigmatic expression. She’s asked for the head of John the Baptist and she’s accepting it on the salver but you can’t help but wonder – does she feel regret, is she disgusted?
She’s not holding the plate, she’s holding it with her scarf almost as if she can’t bear to hold it with her bare hands. And then there’s a divide in the composition with the brutish executioner on the right.
Beyond Caravaggio , sponsored by Credit Suisse, places key works among others who were influenced by him. The exhibition runs until January 15 with £16 full price admission