How to define Caravaggio? In Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book ‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’, he argues, as the title suggests, that he is best described by the blurring of the division between religious intensity and visceral earthiness.
Whilst creating images of extraordinary religious potency, Caravaggio clashed with the law again and again. Over the course of his life he was charged with possessing illegal weapons; assaulting a waiter; vandalising property; circulating libel; insulting an officer; and, in 1606, killing a man in a brawl (over a bet on a game of tennis). His world, described by John Berger as ‘the underworld’, did not contradict the world of his religious paintings. It merged with it. His transition from painting backstreet ruffians to saints was almost seamless.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book, which I read a few years ago, began my love for Caravaggio’s art. At the moment, I am absorbed by a compilation book of his paintings, with details of his influences, biography and impact. Becoming immersed in Caravaggio’s art is often an overwhelming experience. Even when printed on a small page, it is visually and emotionally arresting. Once again, I went back to Berger. His writing on Caravaggio takes us right into the depths of the shadows. Berger points out that the theatricality of Caravaggio’s paintings comes from the underworld. “In the daily theatre of the underworld” he writes, “everything is close-to and emphatic.”
‘Theatrical’ implies something artificial; something constructed out of lighting, gesture and costume. Caravaggio takes these elements but strips them of any sense of self-consciousness. No matter how exaggerative these elements are in his paintings, they are a product of the image’s realism, not an attempt to construct this realism. I think that this is because of the way his figures are more often than not enclosed by shadows. Their theatricality cannot be directed at anyone outside of their world. His art is introspective to the point of being claustrophobic; Berger says that this is because, for the underworld, cramped darkness offers a feeling of protection.
I have been lucky enough to have seen some of these paintings in the flesh, in the collections of Hampton Court’s Queen’s Gallery and the National Gallery, as well as in last year’s exhibition ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ at the National Gallery, which focused on the immense impact that Caravaggio had across Europe in the years after his death. One painting that was in the exhibition was ‘The Taking of Christ’, from the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin. It’s the scene of Christ’s arrest, painted by a man who knew what being arrested feels like. The guards wear contemporary dress and the man in armour seizes Christ with efficient roughness. Two men on the far right peer in, curious. The one holding the lantern is Caravaggio himself.
I love this painting because it is so complex. The composition is a tangle of bodies, everyone (except the fleeing figure on the left) pressing themselves inwards towards Christ, so that the painting feels oppressive and airless. Caravaggio was criticised for rejecting traditional hierarchy in his compositions, which decreed that the figure of Christ should always be clearly distinguished from any other figure. Here, at first glance, Christ is in many ways just another head in the crowd. But he emerges from the confusion because of Caravaggio’s compositional brilliance.
Everyone’s arms are thrust outwards: forceful, grabbing, curious, or fearful. In one way or another, these gestures all speak of demands- to hurt, to take, to know, to escape. Christ’s arms, however, are pushed downwards, his fingers still linked in prayer. This downward line breaks with the pattern of demand and speaks instead of submission and acceptance. His gaze mirrors this, and at the same time, suggests that he is unable to directly face the reality of his arrest. Look at how his head slightly inclines away from Judas’, almost in revulsion. There’s this quivering tension in Christ’s figure between acceptance and denial, as there is in the famous prayer which he said before he was arrested. Caravaggio, the master of composition, had no need of any established rule of hierarchy.
This picture was painted in 1602, four years before he killed a man and fled Rome. Many of the paintings executed from 1606 onwards take the sense of introspection to a deeper level of intensity. The chiaroscuro becomes more pronounced, and the subject matter is charged with psychological tumult. One of the most famous of these post-1606 works is ‘David with the Head of Goliath.’
This picture has no hint of a background: the light coming from the left hits only what is included in the painting’s title. The darkness cuts off David from the outside world so that we are presented with an implication of deep philosophical absorption. If we read this painting as being all about reflecting on a deed done, then it is significant to consider that it was painted when Caravaggio was on the run after the murder. Some art historians have interpreted this painting as a plea for a pardon or an admission of guilt, because the head of Goliath is a self-portrait of the artist himself. For me, what makes this painting so compelling is its ambiguity: the expression of David can be read in so many different ways. He’s not the casually victorious David that we know from Renaissance artists like Donatello; he’s completely lost in thought, and there is perhaps even remorse in his expression.
For me, one of the reasons why Caravaggio’s art is so compelling is that it combines drama and extremity with subtlety and ambiguity, creating an intensity that is not simply a performance. His art is above all about these frozen moments of intensity, whether that intensity is psychological, or visceral, or both. It is as if the scenes become unconsciously and momentarily exposed. In Andrew Graham-Dixon’s words: “Looking at his pictures is like looking at the world by flashes of lightning.”