Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio was an artist of the Baroque period. He was a revolutionary painter and is considered to be a pioneer of the Baroque style. His realistic style created a name for him in the art world, using ‘tenebrism’ (extreme contrast between light and dark) to highlight in his paintings where he wanted the viewer’s eyes to focus. Not everybody appreciated his realism, however, and some in the church regarded his style as quite vulgar and beyond what was acceptable. In his personal life he was notorious for his violent temper. He got into fights, had an extensive police record, and eventually had to leave Rome after he killed a man. However, his paintings were lifelike and brimming with story and emotion. I’ve chosen four paintings that I think depict his work well.
Judith beheading Holofernes was a common subject, with many artists of the period depicting this old testament scene. Judith saves her people by seducing and then killing the Assyrian general Holofernes. She gets him drunk and then cuts off his head. It’s a gory scene – you wouldn’t really want to hang it on your wall. But it is no less compelling for that. Most of the light is on Judith, and the viewer can immediately see that this woman does NOT want to be in this position. She is stiff, distasteful, even revolted, but is doing what she sees as her duty to her country. The man is in the throes of death, and it is a horrifying moment. The servant, standing ready with a bag for the head, seems to be the most enthusiastic. She is grim, but very focused on the scene. Maybe she is thinking about all the damage Holofernes and his people have done. The background is mostly in darkness, some red drapery is about all that can be seen. This compels focus onto the three figures in the story.
In ‘The calling of St Matthew’ the bulk of the light is on Matthew and the men with him, counting money. Christ, at the right, is mostly in darkness, with Peter blocking him from full view. His hand reaches out to point, bridging the gap between righteousness and sin. Matthew is bemused, gesturing to himself – ‘me?’ The two guys on the left don’t even notice they have visitors, as they are so intent on the money. Christ is usually the centre of paintings he is in, so this one is different in that the light is on Matthew, the called, not the caller. It is no less effective for that – it concentrates on the emotion of the disciple-to-be, the confusion over why he who is shunned for his occupation would be chosen by someone like Jesus.
‘The decapitation of St John the Baptist’ takes place in a castle courtyard, with the main grouping of figures to the left instead of central. Only two figures behind a barred window on the right give balance to the painting. St John is already dead, his bound and mostly naked body lying on the ground. The executioner is going for a knife to finish severing the head, while Salome on the far left, leans forward with her silver platter. She doesn’t appear to be happy about what has been done, but she looks very focused on the scene and what she needs to do. Another man, apparently senior to the executioner, is directing proceedings, pointing to the tray where the head is to go, while an elderly woman (a servant, perhaps) seems to be the only one distressed by the scene, clasping her hands to her face. On the right, behind a barred window, two prisoners crane their heads to see what is happening. Do they wonder if that will eventually be their fate? The light is directed on the people in the picture, while the arch behind them leads away into darkness. The bare stones and bars exacerbate the grimness of the scene. I find this painting terribly sad, with a man’s life being snuffed out without any real reason and in such bleak and sordid surroundings.
Caravaggio has done something unusual in ‘The Taking of Christ’ by the way he has closed in on the image. At the time such scenes would have been normally depicted with the characters full body and their surroundings shown. Caravaggio has essentially zoomed in on the action. With darkness all around them, the moonlight and a single lamp are the only light on the faces of the characters in the scene. Judas goes in for the identifying and traitorous kiss, while Christ submits, his eyes turned down, his hands folded. Only the creases in his forehead betray his distress. A soldier grabs at Jesus roughly, while others crowd in behind. On the left a disciple, usually thought to be John, runs in panic. The man on the right who holds the lamp is considered to be a self-portrait by the artist, looking on the tragic scene like a rubber-necker at a traffic accident. The closeness of the portrayal makes the whole scene claustrophobic, a crowd of pushing and jostling bodies which exacerbates the tension and fear. The viewer is meant to feel uncomfortable while looking at this picture, as it’s a scene that’s in your face, that you can’t escape from.
Caravaggio’s work is not pleasant or peaceful. It is full of violence, emotion, and tragedy. It is not static, but full of movement and fire. Brilliant and powerful, his paintings demand an emotional response, and it is very hard to view them in a detached way. It seems to me that the violence he showed in life he also put on the canvases, to come out in his wild and passionate paintings.