Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Caravaggio: Artist and Scoundrel

by Corine B. Erlandson


A profile of the life and world of the Renaissance artist, Caravaggio or Michelangelo Merisi (1573-1610).

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Catholic Heritage



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Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., January/February 1997

Michelangelo Merisi's paintings were heavenly but his personal life was hell, a self-chosen hell. An artist of incredible talent, he could create the most astounding New Testament scenes, while continuing to carouse in the gutter.

Merisi — better known as "Caravaggio" after the northern Italian town where he was born in 1573— would work at his paintings for a time, and then take to the streets, swaggering about with his sword and dagger. He gambled and fought, developing a criminal record well documented in Rome's police files.

In 1603, Caravaggio was put on trial for libel against a fellow painter whom he disliked. In 1604, he threw a plate of hot artichokes at a waiter and threatened him with his sword. In 1605, he wounded a notary with his sword when he learned the notary had had dealings with a woman Caravaggio fancied.

In 1606, the artist and his friends got into a fight with another group over a bet on a tennis match that Caravaggio had not paid up. During the scuffle, Caravaggio killed a fellow named Ranuccio Tommasoni and fled Rome.

The following year the artist traveled south, ending up on the island of Malta, with the hope of becoming a Knight of St. John. He was named an honorary knight, a distinction he apparently wanted, but one that failed to calm him down. In 1608, Caravaggio attacked another knight and was imprisoned, but he managed to escape to Sicily. The knights expelled him from the order.

In 1609, Caravaggio moved to Naples, where he was attacked in a hotel, his face badly slashed.

In 1610, Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua tried to obtain a pardon for the Rome murder from Pope Paul V so Caravaggio could return there. The prospects for the pardon appeared good, so Caravaggio set sail from Naples in the summer of 1610. He decided to play it safe and disembarked just north of Rome, at the Port' Ercole, but there he was mistaken for someone else and imprisoned for two days. He was released and then struck by a raging fever and became bedridden. He died a few days later on July 18, 1610. . . at the age of 36. But if one part of Caravaggio's life sounds like episodes from some 17th-century version of "COPS," the other would be, without a doubt, an incredibly highbrow PBS documentary.

In the midst of his turbulent, crime-ridden life, Caravaggio painted some of the most remarkable Catholic paintings of his time. He was an artist historically placed just before the flowering of the Baroque period, and his painting style has been called its "wellspring."

Innovator that he was, Caravaggio rejected the ideals of the Renaissance artists to depict beauty and harmony. Instead, he insisted that reality was his teacher, and for his models he used common street people including, some art historians believe, prostitutes. He was a master of naturalism, striking light and dark effects, and dramatic composition.

Since most of his commissions were to decorate church altars and chapels, the majority of Caravaggio's paintings centered on Catholic themes. Perhaps unwittingly, he became an effective painter of the Counter-Reformation — a time when the Roman Catholic Church had to reassert its beliefs and practices in the face of Martin Luther and emerging Protestantism.

Crucifixion of St. Peter

In Carravaggio's "Crucifixion of St. Peter," (1600-1601, Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome), there is nothing romantic about this humble beginning of Christ's Church on earth. Caravaggio has reduced this scene of Peter's crucifixion to the essentials: Peter, the laborers and the cross.

The scene is inspired in part from Matthew's Gospel when Jesus asks the disciples who people say He is. "You are the Messiah," Simon Peter answers, "the son of the living God!" Jesus replies, "Blest are you Simon. . . . I for my part declare to you, you are rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it" (Mt 16:16-18).

Caravaggio's painting shows the sheer mechanics of the execution as the laborers strain to crucify Peter upside down. (Tradition says he felt unworthy to die the same way Jesus did.) The positioning of the four people create a cross of bodies as muscles, rope and brute strength struggle to raise Peter on his cross. But there is something more in the demeanor of Peter, who is neither resisting nor angry. Rather, his face shows resignation and sacrifice as he submits to Jesus' prophecy about him. ("'When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go'" [Jn 21:18].)

As Peter looks beyond his crucified hand, there is a sense of sureness and resoluteness. In this moving and dramatic scene, Peter is shown actually becoming the rock of Christ's Church on earth.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" (1601-1602, Neues Palais, Potsdam, Germany) is a marvel in its simplicity and sheer physical nature. The four bodies of Christ, Thomas and two other disciples together form a Roman archway. It's here faith begins for the doubting disciple Thomas (Jn 24-29).

Caravaggio depicts the moment in a realistic, almost surgical manner. Christ indulgently holds the hand of Thomas as he incredulously probes Christ's wound. Thomas has previously been told by the other disciples that they have seen the risen Jesus, but Thomas doesn't believe them. "I will never believe it without probing the nailprints in his hands, without putting my finger in the nailmarks and my hand into his side." Jesus later appears to the disciples, this time with Thomas present. "Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe."

Caravaggio has focused on the literal nature of Thomas, whom he portrays as a counts bumpkin. He paints the precise moment when Jesus appears to the unbelieving Thomas, the dramatic moment when Thomas' doubt must dissolve into belief.

The Entombment of Christ

Caravaggio painted this scene for the altar-piece of the Chiesa Nuova, St. Philip Neri's church in Rome. In "The Entombment of Christ" (1602-1603, Vatican Museums, Vatican City), he has grouped the figures in a fan-like motion, starting with the young woman with the outstretched arms down to Jesus' hanging and lifeless arm. Below the figures is a great slab of stone that projects out toward the viewer, which is symbolic of Jesus as the true foundation of His Church.

The movement of the painting has a gentle downward motion, from the flung up and distressed hands of one of the younger Marys, to the Virgin Mary whose outstretched hand embraces the whole scene, to John's hand holding Jesus' upper body and touching His wound. Nicodemus is the older man holding Jesus' legs. Caravaggio painted the moment just before the group lowers Jesus into His tomb.

Its moving to think that this was the image that Catholics looked at above the altar of the Chiesa Nuova in Rome in the 1600s and 1700s (before the painting was stolen by the French and then returned to the Vatican). This was the image they could ponder when the priest said the words of the consecration during Mass: "This is my body which will be given up for you."

"The Entombment" is a realistic and dramatic rendition of human grief and sorrow, the sorrow of Good Friday, as Jesus' mother and disciples lay their beloved Jesus in what they believe to be His final resting place.

The Madonna of Loreto

Art historian Alfred Moir called "The Madonna of Loreto" (1604-1605, Sant' Agostino Church, Rome) a "religious experience in human terms." Caravaggio has positioned his figures on a dramatic diagonal beginning with the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in a large doorway. The two pilgrims, possibly another mother and son, kneel at street level. Loreto is a pilgrimage site on the Adriatic coast of Italy where, according to local tradition, Mary's house was transported by angels from the Holy Land.

The pilgrims have traveled some distance, as shown by the man's shabby clothes and dirty feet and the old woman's dirty head scarf. But the pilgrims are humble and reverent, and their simple faith is rewarded with a vision of a flesh-and-blood Madonna holding a large Christ Child. Mary looks upon them with compassion, as Jesus blesses the pilgrims. This painting shows a meeting of two worlds, of an approachable Madonna and Christ Child and the simple and earthy faith of two of Gods faithful.

Caravaggio himself lived in two worlds. As his life became more turbulent and violent, his art became calmer and sure. His extensive police record clearly shows he was far from an exemplary Christian, but well versed in his art. He brought much feeling and artistry to familiar Scripture stories and he remained an original and unforgettable interpreter of them. His paintings embodied religious themes in human settings, making viewers then — and now — look at those well-known stories, those central themes, in a whole new way.

Corine B. Erlandson is the editor of The Family Digest magazine.

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