Caravaggio and the Beginnings of Baroque

One of my favorite artists is Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), a dynamic Italian painter who lived a brief and tumultuous life.  Around 1600 Caravaggio developed his famous style of extreme chiaroscuro (painting form with lights and darks) known as "tenebrism" which was a turning point in art.  I have always felt the Renaissance ended and the Baroque began with this style of painting.

The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio  (1599-1600)

His style was criticized as being too realistic in Italy because he frequented taverns and brothels and used the people he met there as his models for subjects in religious painting.  However he had a near immediate stylistic influence on Dutch, French and Spanish art as well as influencing the next generation of Italian painters.  Let’s look at two of my favorite Caravaggio paintings, starting with The Calling of St. Matthew, in Rome.

This breathtaking painting is still located in the church it was painted for; it shows the moment in time when Christ calls Matthew to be one of his apostles.  Matthew is in a tavern, his companions are immersed in drinking and gambling.  Caravaggio paints everyone in modern dress though the subject is biblical, this way the contemporary viewer will be able to relate to the saint.  With this painting Caravaggio draws the viewer into the painting, it was not common for figures in a painting to have their backs turned to you, but he includes this type of realism as another way to relate to the subject.

Though his friends are still partaking in gambling, Matthew feels the Holy Spirit descend upon him and there is no doubt that he will follow Christ.  The influence of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is clear, the extended arm and hand of Christ is that of Adam (seen below).  

Creation of Man, Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1510
This can be interpreted as a direct link between the sins of Adam and the redemption of man due to the sacrifice of Christ.  There is also a symbol foreshadowing the death of Christ, the cross.  If at first you don’t see it then look again at the window panes, there is the cross in the center.  This would have been more apparent to the contemporary viewer; such large window panes are everywhere today but would have been rare at the time. 

The Conversion of Saint Paul, Caravaggio  (1600-01)

One of my very favorite paintings is Caravaggio's The Conversion of Saint Paul.  This painting actually made me stagger backwards in awe and almost fall when I saw it in person for the first time in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  The image is powerful in its simplicity of design which was not typical of painting at the time.  Usually paintings were crowded with many figures, here the message has a greater impact.  Caravaggio shows the moment in time when the Roman soldier Saul, hears the voice of God.  He is stunned and is knocked from his horse by this powerful moment as he is converted to the Christian, St. Paul.  This was criticized for focusing on “the ass of a horse" in a holy painting, but with St. Paul falling towards the viewer and breaking the perceived space of the painting, it is a groundbreaking work of art and another way the artist connects the viewer to the image.

Compare this with the work of a popular artist at the time, Annibale Caracci.  Caracci's Assumption of the Virgin Mary, is located in the same chapel next to The Conversion of St. Paul.  It was done in the typical style of the time and while it is an exuberant painting, it doesn't match the solemn realism of Caravaggio.  The subject matter takes place in another realm, unlike Caravaggio's paintings which nearly include the viewer.

The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Annibale Caracci (1600-01)

Penitent Magdalene, Georges de la Tour, 1640, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

While other painters after Caravaggio use tenebrism, he alone used as his light source a holy light coming from God or religious figures. Compare this to the French artist, Georges de la Tour’s Penitent Magdalene.  He was a Caravaggisti (follower of the style of Caravaggio) and while it is a remarkable painting, the light source is a candle rather than the use of holy light.

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1625,

Another powerful example of a work by a Caravaggisti, is Judith and her Maidservant, by Artemisia Gentileschi from roughly the same period.  This is a stunningly well executed painting but Gentileschi also uses a candle as her light source.
Caravaggio shows us that by following the holy light of God, people are coming out of the darkness that they have been living in.  His paintings contain few figures, but the others in the painting are surrounded by darkness.  He could relate to the sinners in his paintings as he was frequently in trouble with the law.  In a drunken brawl he killed a man in Rome and spent several years in exile going to Naples, Malta and Sicily before heading back to Rome where he died a tragic death at age 38.  During his lifetime painted few works, however the works he left behind had an enormous influence on painting.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas is going to have a Caravaggio exhibit this fall, the following is from their website:

Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, October 16, 2011 through January 8, 2012

One of the most intriguing and influential figures in the history of art, Caravaggio (1571–1610) overturned the artistic conventions of the day and created stunningly dramatic paintings, both sacred and secular. This ambitious exhibition explores the profound impact of his work on the wide range of painters of Italian, French, Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish origin who resided in Rome. Arranged by theme, it includes about 60 paintings, with Caravaggio's compelling images juxtaposed with those he inspired.

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