“A masterpiece of surprise"
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) was a radical and revolutionary artist whose work had a transformative impact on art in Italy and beyond during his lifetime and in the decades following his premature death. Brilliant, challenging, argumentative and violent, our image of his work is inseparable from his tumultuous personal life, which combined support from several of the most discriminating patrons of the day, with repeated appearances in the Roman law courts. In 1606 he murdered a man after a quarrel over a game of tennis and spent the last four years of his life as a fugitive, although he also produced his most profound and moving works during this time.
This is the first exhibition of works by Caravaggio and his followers – the so-called Caravaggesque painters – ever to be shown in Scotland. Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting and compositions, and his radically new approach to subject matter exerted a huge influence on a host of contemporary artists from all over Europe, many of them painters of the very highest calibre, such as Gentileschi, Ribera, Valentin and Ter Brugghen.
This exhibition is a collaboration between the National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Galleries of Scotland.
Part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2017.
Image: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602
On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson St., Dublin who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson. Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Painting from Life: Music, Drinking and Gambling
Born and trained in Lombardy in northern Italy, Caravaggio probably moved to Rome in 1592, at the age of about 21. According to his biographers, Caravaggio initially struggled to find success, producing modest works and copies for the open market. He then spent periods as an assistant in the workshop of Antiveduto Gramatica and subsequently that of the successful Giuseppe Cesari (called Cavaliere d’Arpino), where he specialised in painting fruit and flowers.
Boy Bitten by a Lizard (about 1594-5) by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s first independent paintings – depicting youths, musicians, cardsharps and fortune-tellers – were highly original on account of their everyday subject matter and naturalistic lighting. These early works brought him to the attention of powerful and influential patrons, such as Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627) and the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564–1637). His followers were still producing variations on such themes thirty years later. Their highly realistic still-life elements call to mind Caravaggio’s own claim that painting still life required as much artistry as painting figures. The importance that Caravaggio placed on looking at nature, and on painting both figures and accessories directly from life (‘dal naturale’), without recourse to preparatory drawings, was one of the most original aspects of his art.
The Life of Christ: Tradition and Innovation
While many of Caravaggio’s early works were ground-breaking both for their novel subject matter and for their style, the bulk of his mature production consists of paintings of conventional religious themes. Their novelty lay in his freshness of vision, his departure from the traditional, accepted ways of presenting these subjects pictorially. His paintings are often truer than those of his predecessors and contemporaries to the spirit of the scriptural sources from which they are drawn. Episodes from the Bible and the lives of the saints are acted out by ordinary, humble folk, with careworn features, dirty feet and torn clothes. Caravaggio’s insistence on painting directly from live models and his inclusion of contemporary costumes and other props make his paintings appear as if they are taking place in the here and now rather than the distant past. The enduring relevance and validity of the religious messages they convey is in this way made clear.
Christ Displaying his Wounds (about 1625-35) by Giovanni Antonio Galli
Caravaggio’s approach was aligned with much religious thinking at the time, for example among the Franciscan and Oratorian religious orders. But such directness and authenticity was too much for some, and several of his commissioned works were rejected by their patrons. Caravaggio’s powerful and compelling storytelling was one of the most influential and enduring aspects of his work, as many of the paintings by his followers demonstrate.
The Old Testament: Sacred and Profane
Caravaggio himself painted only four subjects from the Old Testament and Apocrypha, all of them with a violent and strongly secular character. These were Judith beheading Holofernes (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome), the Sacrifice of Isaac (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), and two very different compositions of David and Goliath (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Galleria Borghese, Rome), the latter hauntingly featuring a self-portrait in the guise of the decapitated giant. The blurring of the distinction between the sacred and the profane was a distinctive characteristic of his approach to religious subjects, and one which was taken up by many of his followers.
Susannah and the Elders (1622) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Neither the uncompromising brutality of Pietro Novelli’s Cain slaying Abel nor the more understated violence of Orazio Gentileschi’s David slaying Goliath would have been possible without Caravaggio’s example. Other Caravaggesque artists selected Old Testament stories such as Lot and his Daughters, Susannah and the Elders and Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife for the opportunity they afforded for the sensual display of flesh. These and similar tales typically embody worthy moral lessons, and artists and patrons alike could appeal to the biblical sources of such subjects as justification for the painting of nudity and gore.
Miracles and Martyrdom: The Lives of the Saints
In the light of the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation that emerged mainly north of the Alps during the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church took stock of its position, notably at the many sessions of the Council of Trent (1545–63). As part of the Counter-Reformation which followed, Catholic churchmen and writers vigorously reasserted the central articles and practices of their faith. Key among these was an emphatic endorsement of the crucial role played by the Virgin Mary and the saints in the religious life of the faithful – as sources of solace, models to emulate and intermediaries between the individual and God. Against Protestant denial and charges of superstition, the veracity of their lives and miracles was reaffirmed.
Saint Onuphrius (1630?) by Jusepe de Ribera
This resurgence was reflected in the visual arts, with a proliferation of devotional images of saints and depictions of exemplary and miraculous episodes from their legends. Caravaggio and Caravaggesque painters were no exception. They were predictably attracted to episodes which offered maximum potential for drama and violence, notably scenes of conversion, religious ecstasy, and martyrdom. But much depended on the nature of commissions, the tastes and requirements of patrons, and the need to make a living. Single-figure representations of saints were typically intended for private devotion, as aids to prayer, although in Caravaggio’s case they often have an ambiguity about them: a brooding St John the Baptist in the Wilderness as a pretext for the display of a beautiful adolescent body; or a suspiciously seductive St Catherine of Alexandria, possibly modelled on a girlfriend of his who was a prostitute.
Secular Works: Myth, Allegory, History
Depictions of subjects drawn from classical mythology and ancient history, as well as allegorical representations, were central to the work of the majority of mainstream artists of the early seventeenth century. But among most Caravaggesque painters, they occupy at best a marginal place. This is especially true of multi-figure narrative compositions. The exceptions often depend on the few single-figure classical gods painted by Caravaggio himself, notably his two very different representations of Cupid, the god of earthly love (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin and Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence). These inspired numerous spin-offs and derivations.
A Man Singing by Candlelight (about 1625-35) by Adam De Coster
Similarly, landscape painting saw an explosion in popularity in the first half of the seventeenth century, both north and south of the Alps, and yet it barely features in the work of most Caravaggesque painters. When it does, it is included very much as a setting or backdrop, rather than an independent category as practised by the likes of Annibale Carracci, Domenichino, Paul Bril, Claude Lorrain or Poussin.
Subjects from everyday life, on the other hand, and especially nocturnal, candlelit scenes, continued to remain popular among Caravaggio’s later imitators, while images of unkempt ancient philosophers by Ribera and his circle enjoyed particular success in Naples.
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