Monday, February 27, 2006

Caravaggio was a Rock Star: The controversies and challenges behind his first public commissions in the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels.

Whitney Frank
Honors in Rome - Winter 2006

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s biographer, Giovanni Bellori criticized the artist for “lacking in invention, [being] destitute of ideal beauty and grace, decorum, of architecture and perspective and other desirable elements” and on the whole, he was correct (Hinks 29). Examining Caravaggio’s entire oeuvre directly reveals a radical departure from these artistic conventions Bellori—an “extreme Classicist”—listed as vital to laudable painting. It may seem rather strange to hear such harsh words said of the man whom today we typically consider the inventor of modern painting. But in the thick of the confining Counter-Reformation, Caravaggio worked in a controversial and ground-breaking group of very few artists. Influenced by northern Italian artists and his contemporaries—not antiquity or Quattro cento academics like Raphael—he stood out against his competitors as he disregarded Classical canon and adhered to an unprecedented naturalistic and expressionistic form. His first public commissions in the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels in Rome are monumental and demonstrate the evolution of a young and experimenting student of nature a master of color, dramatic ingenuity, and realism—despite what Bellori said.

Caravaggio is renowned for his brash and rowdy lifestyle filled with brawls and a few law suits—and the infamous murder over a tennis match that prompted him to leave Rome for the south. However, he did not exactly set out to become a bombastic revolutionary (in artistic style at least); rather he pieced together appealing influences of his youth and reacted against his rather narrow training. In 1571, Michelangelo Merisi was born in Caravaggio, a small town close to Milan. He had a relatively comfortable childhood; his father owned a good-sized amount of land and worked for the Marchese of the town. At thirteen he was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano, but the most formative period in Caravaggio’s life was arguably his twenty-odd years in Lombardy, the region surrounding Milan. Lombardy had a heritage of naturalistic art.
image 1

Artists of this school, like Giovanni Savoldo (image 1) and the Campi brothers, utilized effects of “natural light and the communication of intense human expression” to create a heightened sense of drama (Puglisi 8). Caravaggio rejected the Mannerist tendencies Peterzano employed, like exaggerated forms and keen elegance, in favor of these Lombard qualities, making expression, light, and color the fundamental elements of his work (image 2). 

image 2

Venetian art was also an influence—there was much communication between Venice and Lombardy before and during his youth and artists brought back ideas and art from painters like Titian and Tintoretto. For Romans (including Bellori), Caravaggio’s early works recalled too many northern Italian characteristics and they often joked that they were too “Giorgionesque: pure coloring, tempered shadows, and use of a few tones to render natural form” (Puglisi 38) (image 3). 
image 3

Departing from the typical painting doctrine, he also utilized the Venetian tradition of roughing out the plans on the canvas and correcting them as needed, forgoing preliminary sketches (Bayer 67).

Caravaggio arrived in Rome around 1590 and worked in the studio of Giuseppe Cerasi, mostly refining his hand at still lives for which he had talent. Painting flowers and fruit in addition to working for someone only a few years his elder did not satisfy Caravaggio’s “independent spirit” and after a short stint of unemployment, he was introduced to Cardinal del Monte, “an enthusiastic amateur and patron of young artists” (Hinks 21). Not only did del Monte let Caravaggio live in his palace, but he even secured him his first public commission: the altarpiece (and eventually two side panels) for Cardinal Matteo Contarelli’s chapel in San Luigi de’ Francesi, the French National Church in Rome. Before he died in 1585, Contarelli had commissioned a sculptor, Cobaert, to create an altarpiece of his name saint and the Angel but it was not satisfactory. It needed to be replaced, but a law suit over Contarelli’s donation to the church kept the clergy so occupied that the chapel remained closed for more than five years. 
image 4

Caravaggio’s replacement altarpiece, Saint Matthew and the Angel, also showed the Angel imparting the scripture to Matthew, but his first version was rejected (image 4). This commission presented Caravaggio with unprecedented challenges as these were the largest canvases he had attempted thus far. The monumental scale strained his technical powers since he was still relatively inexperienced and had not fully undergone intense training at an Academy like many of his peers. He also must have felt pressure to please from the fact that these large devotional works would be viewed by a diverse public forum. This fairly embarrassing situation was resolved by the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, an admirer of the young artist who purchased the rejected piece and arranged for him to create a new one, The Inspiration of Matthew, that was installed not long after the side panels in 1602.

The clergy rejected the first piece on the premise that the depiction of Saint Matthew was highly indecorous. In response to the troubles brought on by the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church made some modifications to revitalize and strengthen itself. One aspect of the Counter-Reformation was to emphasize high spirituality of the leaders of the church, which included saints. Devotional art was a direct way to assert the Church’s ideals and the standards for religious art were dictated at the Council of Trent in 1563:

“Religious images should teach the faithful how to invoke saintly intercession and to
honor and venerate saints. They are reminders of God’s grace and are virtuous
exemplars of pious conduct and devotion to God; representations must not be lewd
or unbecoming, irreverent or disrespectful” (Hinks 54).

Religious art must move the faithful, impassion and provoke them to desire to be saintly and therefore, saints should be pristine and beautiful. In the case of Saint Matthew and the Angel, showing Matthew’s thick, ruddy legs naked below the knees with his large foot projecting out at the viewer was not going to inspire the masses to lead lives of utmost piety. Indeed, Matthew looks much less like a saint to be venerated and more like a common field-worker one might pass on the street: his big bulbous head sans halo, heavy body, and brow wrinkled with the strain of concentration are a stark contrast to the angel’s softness and majesty. One can even go as far to call Matthew slow-witted because the Angel actually must guide his hand across the page while Matthew seems utterly astonished that he can form the letters, let alone that he is writing Holy Scripture.

image 5

Though the subject is still the same, Caravaggio made many compromises for The Inspiration of Matthew to the clergy’s delight. The most striking difference between the two is the new arrangement of figures into a hierarchical form: the angel in a swirl of white drapery gracefully floats above Matthew’s head while he kneels at his desk, looking up at the angel (image 5). Matthew listens to the review of Jesus’ genealogy and his gaze draws viewers upwards towards the angel. The viewer is situated below the picture, completing this hierarchical system; the faithful are supposed to attempt to be like Matthew as he is the intermediary between the world and heaven, represented here by the angel. It is easier and more proper to venerate a saint when he looks the part and in this work, Matthew looks immaculate; he is dressed in a stunning orange garment that immediately catches the viewer’s eye and he is clean and would probably have a high social standing in actuality. He looks intently at the saint but he understands what he is doing as he grasps the pen himself, unlike the dumbfounded Matthew in the first version. However, the bench he kneels on leans out somewhat precariously towards the chapel as if to remind the viewers that although he is a saint, he was not a perfect person; he is learning in this picture but is still intelligent and faithful.

The panel on the left is The Calling of Matthew, a relatively subtle depiction of conversion to Christianity. Jesus and Peter enter Levi’s tax-collecting office (after conversion he will be known as Matthew) and Jesus points at Levi, calling him to leave behind the momentary material world and follow him to eternity by joining his disciples. Matthew is surprised that he is chosen and points to himself to make sure he is the one whom Jesus means. The setting, rumored to be based on Caravaggio’s studio in del Monte’s palace, is musty and dark; the only light comes in from a mystery window behind Jesus’ head. Jesus strides forward with the light (as he is called “the light of the world”) and it hits Levi’s face, symbolizing his conversion as he will soon become “enlightened.” Caravaggio used tenebrism, or powerful contrasts of large shadowy areas and piercing light, to separate the realm of the believers from sinners: the two men to the left of Levi do not even notice Christ’s presence and they continue to count their money, emphasizing the focus of non-believers on material matters. Christ’s gaze is intent on Levi and his gesture, remarkably similar God’s hand giving life to Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, heightens the sense of drama as it invokes the viewer to make the connection of eternal life with following Jesus. Caravaggio further delineates between sinners and saved by dressing all the men at the table in contemporary costume while Jesus and Peter wear Biblical robes. The classic dress reveals that they and their beliefs belong to eternity while those in modern dress represent the unbelieving humanity who will not be saved. Even if this story from the Bible took place outdoors, the simple interior wall in the dim background is a perfect setting for the scene to take place as a setting in nature might detract from the subtle but intense internal drama of Matthew’s conversion.

The third painting on the right wall is the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, which gave Caravaggio the most trouble. Contarelli requested that Matthew’s execution be shown in a gloriously chaotic scene with witnesses, some feeling content and others compassionate and frightened while Matthew was to be shown beaten to the ground but not yet dead, the executioner about to strike the fatal blow (Puglisi 154). Such an intricate and action-filled scene placed much strain on the young artist as this was unlike any other work he had yet completed. He did paint a first version of the piece but was completely dissatisfied with it and started over. The work currently in place is his second attempt and it fits well with the Cardinal’s requests, for the Martyrdom is an immediately frightening and chaotic scene. The scene takes place on a dark baptismal font where Matthew was in the process of baptizing several men. In the center, a shaft of light illuminates both the executioner and Matthew who has fallen to the ground. At first he reaches up to defend himself, but Caravaggio depicts him acquiescing because he sees an angel handing him a palm frond, the symbol of martyrdom. The light cuts diagonally to the lower left of the painting but it becomes fragmented and lights up various faces, backs, and hands (principal body parts) to increase overall energy and intensify the chaos. From farther away, the work looks like a centrifuge of figures spinning out from the central two but all are projected onto the frontal plane—a definite break from the Classical school of composition. This forces the viewer into the middle of the violent commotion affronting his or her senses with the calamity of martyrdom. The emotion of this piece is represented by the face of the young boy to the right of Matthew, his terrified acolyte who is about to flee. He is an expressive study of emotion—much like his Head of Medusa, but this study is of sheer panic. On the left are four witnesses in modern dress who are meant to represent the world: two are indifferent and two are aghast, but all four are useless (Hinks 60). Again in this work, the Biblical dress emphasizes the idea that they and the Christian faith are eternal and the juxtaposition of it with modern dress serves as a reminder that the past remains in the present. Viewers are called to bear witness to such divine revelations and Caravaggio brings them as close as possible to the events.

The paintings from the Contarelli Chapel, often called the “del Monte group,” characterize Caravaggio’s early works. They show the beginning of his combination of reality and myth that creates a kind of new form of history painting where past events are brought into the perspective of the present. With this first public commission, he breaks from Classical and also current painting techniques by using models to achieve a naturalistic effect and earth tones and tenebrism to create heightened drama—subtle or outstanding. Though they can be considered a triumph over great difficulties, his two paintings in the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo epitomize the height of Caravaggio’s career as they demonstrate his artistic maturity. Marchese Giustiniani probably secured him this commission while he was working on the Contarelli Chapel and yet again Caravaggio’s first submissions were rejected (this time they were purchased by Cardinal Sannesio). The two works currently in place were his second attempts and they are quite different from the Contarelli pieces indicating this shift in Caravaggio’s style.

The right panel is the Conversion of Saint Paul, which rival artist Giovanni Baglione sardonically called a “portrait of a horse” (Hinks 69). Saul (eventually Paul) was heading to Damascus to persecute Christians when all of the sudden the voice of Jesus called out to him, asking him to convert and join him and his disciples. The voice was so powerful that it knocked Saul off of his horse and blinded him for three days until he converted. Indeed, the horse in Caravaggio’s depiction takes up much of the canvas and there is a noticeable lack of action in the piece as Saul has already fallen to the ground and his elderly servant has tamed the reeling horse. Caravaggio used a limited narrative, retaining only necessary elements to create a dramatic effect. All action is contained in Saul who is utterly stunned, his arms reaching up and out towards the skies. The viewer should reflect on Saul’s internal conflict as the drama of his conversion is the focus of the story and this is clear because there are few distracting elements in the painting: the scene is shrouded in a mysterious darkness and there are only three figures involved. Once again Caravaggio uses light as a holy transmitter: in the top right corner light beams shoot down towards Saul, symbolizing Christ’s voice. Caravaggio’s rather understated take on the story is an unprecedented conception of conversion as his focus is on the saint’s response to the transcendental experience.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter on the opposite wall also relies on “minimal means” to achieve a poignant and meaningful portrayal of the crucifixion (Hinks 67). Like the Conversion, there is an absence of any descriptive setting as the background is very dark and light shines diagonally from the right mostly onto Peter’s face. The black rock in the background probably represents Peter, for he is the rock on which the Church was founded (Puglisi 172). There is a great contrast of action and emotion seen between the workers lifting the cross and Peter: all action takes place in the men lifting the cross. They are anonymous workers doing their everyday job; they are dirty and straining hard and we never see their entire bodies because we view them from angles. Peter on the other hand, is in full view and Caravaggio paid careful attention to his body: it truly is the body of an old man, with thin skin, a flabby torso, and a balding and wrinkled head. He has a look of despair laced with insolence on his face as he gazes towards his nailed hand. He contemplates his imminent death and seems slightly uncertain of the last few hours of his life. Peter’s story is about humiliation as he thought it wrong to be crucified in the same manner as Christ, insisting that he be crucified upside down. The poor, ugly workers and Peter’s miserable countenance reminds the congregation that this was not a heroic execution but a wretched and humiliating crucifixion.

The Cerasi Chapel is small and visitors have to view Caravaggio’s paintings at oblique angles. Annibale Carracci’s altarpiece of the Assumption was in place before Caravaggio completed the side panels and although the two artists worked in very different styles, it seems like Caravaggio designed his pieces to work with Carracci’s. Saul’s arms reach out towards the altar and the light source comes from the area of the altarpiece. The diagonals in the Crucifixion plunge towards the altar and Peter also gazes in its direction. If the cross were set in place, he would be facing it. These pieces may be very different stylistically and in subject matter, but Caravaggio’s clever techniques help unify them almost as a narrative for the viewer to contemplate: the first step is to believe in Christ, then to reach salvation in heaven one must have faith and make sacrifices. These paintings are a triumph of not only Caravaggio’s mastery of technique and form, but his of his poetic talents, making the Cerasi Chapel a stunning setting for prayer and personal reflection.

Caravaggio depicts these scenes from the lives of saints in a way previously unseen. He employs strong lighting and dark shadowy areas to enhance drama and highlight important features like faces or hands. He creates a new kind of history painting by mixing the historical story with the mythological tale but has a naturalistic approach to make the scene relatable to life at the time. By moving the action completely into the foreground and limiting the narrative to only necessary elements, he affronts viewers with dramatic, emotional, and sometimes gruesome Biblical accounts. In this sense, Caravaggio responds to the ideas of Counter Reformation art; the intense drama (internal or explicit) of the moments he chooses to depict forces the worshipper to reflect on these scenes, compelling them to venerate and imitate the lives of the saints. But Caravaggio responds in an unprecedented and unmatched manner that spurs countless followers, none of whom can match his technique, originality, or intensity.

Clearly Caravaggio is still admired and loved today—there were tons of tourists swarming the churches just to get a quick glimpse of his works! He was part of the great debate of design versus color, later epitomized by the Poussinistes who drew their inspiration from Carracci and of course, Raphael, and the Rubenists who followed Correggio and Titian. I was surprised to learn of how much some of his contemporaries harshly criticized his work and I found it curious that some of them became his biographers. Out of everyone we have thus far studied, I am most drawn to Caravaggio—the controversy and drama of his rowdy lifestyle and artistic style move and excite me. It does not matter that I do not attend church because his works hit me with a wave of such intense emotion that I feel as if I have witnessed the crucifixion in person. The revolutionaries are always the most interesting ones and they produce everlasting art.

Bayer, Andrea. Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in

Lombardy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.

Hinks, Roger. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: His Life—His Legend—His Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon Press Limitied, 1998.

Voss, Hermann. Baroque Painting in Rome, vol. 1. San Fransisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1997.