The Power Of Art: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

“The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs.” That’s how Simon Schama introduces us to art in his fascinating book: The Power of Art. The first character he introduces us to is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

From the start, there are only two things you need to know about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: that he made the most powerfully physical Christian art that has ever been painted, and that he killed someone.

When you look at Caravaggio’s art you respond physically.

[Y]ou look at Caravaggio’s shocking painting of himself as the severed head of the Philistine giant Goliath (below). And you see something that had never been painted before and would never be painted again: a portrait of the artist as ogre, his face a grotesque mask of sin. It’s an image of unsparing self-incrimination and it certainly makes you wonder.

Caravaggio: David and Goliath

This is an artist who reminds us he’s there.

The great breakthrough of the Renaissance painting had been perspective, the depth punched through the far side of the picture plane. But Caravaggio is more interested in where we are, in the space in front of the picture plane which he makes a point of invading. Looking at the outflung arms of Christ in his Supper at Emmaus (below), 1600-01 (National Gallery, London), you almost duck to avoid the impact. Caravaggio isn’t a beckoner—he’s a grabber, a button-holer; his paintings shamelessly come out and accost us, as if he were crossing the street and, oh God, coming our way. ‘You looking at me?’

Caravaggio — the last supper

In many ways the Roman Church had been waiting for Caravaggio to help with the “greatest propaganda campaign that Christendom has ever seen.”

Assailed by the northern European Reformation, it (the Roman Church) was in dire need of a sacred visual drama that simple believers could respond to tangibly as if it were acted out in their presence. Much was at stake. Images were not just an incidental sideshow in the religious war between Catholics and Protestants; they went to the heart of the matter. For Lutherans, the Word written in the Holy Scriptures was everything. The claim of the Roman clergy, from the Pope down to the parish priest, that they alone held the keys to salvation, and that redemption could only be achieved through the mysteries and rituals of which they were the guardians, was dismissed by Lutherans as a wicked and presumptuous fraud. And at the heart of what they perceived as institutionalized deception were images: the pictures and sculptures of saints and madonnas, of the Saviour and even (the most shocking blasphemy, this) of the Heavenly Father himself. These were the idols, the painted mummery, by which the credulous were kept infantile, held in thrall by the Pope of Rome and his minions. They were, thundered the Lutherans, a plain violation of the second commandment, which forbade ‘graven images.’ So along with the secret distribution of vernacular Bibles, the most dramatic expression of the Protestant revolution was the destruction of images. On to the bonfire they went, in the Netherlands, Germany, England and in the reformed Protestant Swiss cities of Geneva, Basel, and Zurich.

Shaken by the scale and fury of the destruction of images, it took little time for the Roman Catholic Church to mount a counter-attack. … Instinctively as well as intellectually the Church Fathers knew that, since the vast majority of men and women in Europe were illiterate, images were still the most powerful way to instruct the masses and hold their allegiance. To do otherwise was to condemn the poor and unlettered to ignorance, heresy and, ultimately the damnation of their immortal souls.

Instead of backing off, they created more.

Sensibly, they conceded that there had been abuses and extravagances in some of the art that had found its way into churches: depictions of fabulous wonders done by dubious saints that were little more than fairytales; liberties taken with the likenesses of the Father and the Holy Virgin; even some gross indecencies that made images more like distracting entertainments than objects of reverence. All of those corruptions would go. Henceforth, the Council decreed, sacred art would be in the spirit of the Saviour himself: modest and austere. It would forgo the seductions and pagan profanities of worldly beauty for the supreme vocation of instilling piety.

They had one problem: no one knew what such art would look like. The Church wanted images that were both naturally simple and accessible; the Renaissance masters for the common folk. Yet the talent at the time was, in Schama’s words, “limited.” Luckily for them, Caravaggio rose from obscurity.

Caravaggio: Boy Bitten by a Lizard

Of course, if you had a mind to, you could read Boy Bitten by a Lizard, c.1595, as a warning against sexual mischief. Just in case you hadn’t cottoned on to the bitten digit and the thorny rose, a smirking local would have told you that on the streets, ‘lizard’ was slang for ‘penis.’ The wound inflicted on the saucy lounge-lizard with the flower tucked behind his ear was, then, the bite of the inevitable social disease that visited innocents hooking up with the kind of girls Caravaggio and his pals favoured. Much more important than its snigger value, though, was the work’s function as a composite portfolio of all the talents that Caravaggio was pitching. Here was someone who, from the detail in the waterbowl in which his own studio was reflected (making the painting a double-disguised self-portrait), was a dazzling master of illusionist naturalism — the first quality that those in the market for raw young talent would seek. But then the perfectly rendered moment of recoil — body thrown back facial features contorted in pain, skin flushed with a rush of blood — also advertised a master of body and face language, someone who could make visual and extreme passions in just the way Leonardo had demanded of any truly ambitious history painter. … for those who had eyes to see, this was the work of a stunningly strange virtuoso.

Caravaggio: Young Sick Bacchus

The strange virtuoso got stranger.

Perhaps it was when he got out of the hospital that Caravaggio painted his Sick Bacchus, 1593-4 (above). The very idea of it, nevermind the way it was executed, was an outlandish challenge to the conventions. Bacchus, after all, was not just the god of wine and revelry, but one of the patron deities of dance and song; and as such he had always been depicted as a perpetual youth. Caravaggio, however, turned him into a literally sick joke. The lips are grey, the eyes leering, the skin unnervingly shallow, the overloaded wreath of vine leaves around his brow excessive rather than festive. By painting himself as an overdressed party animal the morning after, Caravaggio upended the conventions. … It’s not just a joke; it’s a revolutionary statement of intent. The whole point of art, according to its Renaissance theorists, was the idealization of nature. Caravaggio had just announced that his business would be the naturalization of the ideal.

Caravaggio brings off this unnerving marriage between the pure and the vulgar with a showy skill that no one had seen in Rome since Raphael.

The reality effect made Caravaggio great. “And that startling immediacy,” writes Schama, “owed everything to his strategically calculated lighting.”

Caravaggio discovered

(Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte) was hungry for culture — science and mathematics, as well as music, history, poetry and painting. And one way in which the cardinals of Rome established their place in the aristocratic pecking order was by cultural taste and patronage. … del Monte was on the lookout for promising talent. All he had to do was cross the street to Spata’s art shop to see The Card Sharps. When he had seen it he must have known he’d struck gold. Caravaggio was made an offer: board and lodging; studio space on the top floor of del Monte’s Plazzo Madama; and, best of all, patronage, not only by the Cardinal himself, but by the network of grandees, some secular, some in the Church, who came to the palazzo for concerts, dinners and elegantly high-minded conversations.

Caravaggio: The Card Sharps

Some of the paintings Caravaggio did while living at the palazzo were strangely erotic. Hopefully, they don’t make Cardinals like del Monte anymore. In The Musicians, painted under the influence of del Monte, four barely dressed boys are fit into an impossibly tight picture.

music Caravaggio

Awkward physical proximity is precisely the point. It’s contact painting: thighs and hands and arms all doing something, turning up, plucking grapes and, in the case of Caravaggio himself, at the back grasping his horn. The fact that the dewy youth on the left comes with a pair of Cupid’s wings is hardly more than a non to allegory, a gesture that is a transparently unconvincing alibi against raised eyebrows in the plazzo. This is, after all, a cardinal’s residence.

Eventually, Caravaggio’s big break came. He was commissioned to paint the Matthews, which would be, by far, the biggest painting he had ever done and, more importantly, it would be the most visible. Caravaggio was assigned to paint Matthew on the chapel wall in the French church of San Luigi. This would also be the first time that Caravaggio was painting something that was not entirely under his control. A french cardinal, Mathiew Cointrel, left detailed instructions on how the scene — of martyrdom and the calling of the tax collector by Jesus — should be handled. Caravaggio knew that this job would be the making or breaking of him as an artist.

Caravaggio Matthew


Still curious? You can read Simon Schama’s book, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series (based on the book). While you’re at it, pick up E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.