Beyond Caravaggio: Flashes of Lightning

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said “Let there be light;” and there was light.

— Genesis 1:3

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a man well used to navigating darkness; both the darkness of his own tormented character, and that which shrouded the narrow streets of Rome in the early 1600’s. Widely deemed to be a prolific gambler and violent drunk, Caravaggio lived out most of his success in the shadows of morality, preferring the company of those that pious society had cast aside. These relationships would go on to feature heavily in his work, and inspire the devastating realism so often associated with his name.

The latest project unveiled by the National Gallery is Letizia Treves’ Beyond Caravaggio, an exhibition devoted to the cult of personality that developed around the 17th Century’s most prolific painter, and the extent to which this adoration went on to influence subsequent decades of European art. Simultaneously breathtaking and underwhelming, the collection strikes a pointed balance between inspiration and mimicry, with the latter’s attempts at poetic imitation falling undeniably, and often quite jarringly, flat.

While there is some controversy associated with identifying a true Caravaggio, many of his confirmed works are so uniquely recognisable that one wonders how they were ever in question at all. Standing in front of his paintings is like pressing your nose against the window of a stranger’s home, the figures inside illuminated by a dazzling candle positioned somewhere out of reach. Subjects are often immortalised in a state of suspended animation, giving the impression that the story would have continued if not for the intrusion of the viewer. We have walked unwittingly into the Supper at Emmaus, causing time to shudder to an everlasting halt.

So, too, do we stumble across St John in the Wilderness as he contemplates his exile under a particularly celestial beam of natural moonlight. Naked, brooding, athletic — he is at once everything and nothing, a solitary figure at the mercy of a charcoal forest. Deep shadows fall over his eyes and heart, his earthly body already marked for sacrifice by an unknown source of brilliant light.

As you gaze into the inky waters of a true Caravaggio, the entire world appears to grow smaller. Tight cropping and a high contrast palette create an atmosphere of almost desperate urgency as figures loom out of the heavy darkness, drawing the viewer into a world parallel to his own. Just as the depraved exist alongside the civilised, sometimes mixing, other times recoiling, Caravaggio’s use of degenerate models was an infamous source of outrage and controversy for commissioners. Prostitutes, male lovers, beggars, and thieves — all played a part in the creation of the Caravaggesque universe, as he cast light upon the formless and murky reputation of the Italian night to reveal beauty, humanity, fear, and joy.

Perhaps the most surreal example of Caravaggio’s dedication to modernity and relevance is his decision to include himself in the Taking of Christ, his form represented by an inquisitive figure dangling a lantern above one of the most infamous scenes in religious history.

As Christ recoils from Judas’ kiss and a soldier’s well-placed grip seals his mortal fate, the polished armour plates appear to glow in almost menacing contrast to the velvet-like safety of the pitch dark street. The lantern focuses our gaze on Caravaggio’s eyes; two empty pools echoing those of Judas himself.

Taking of Christ was a revolution in religious painting, lending to the genre a sense of realism and urgency never before seen in the galleries of Florence and Rome. If not for the emotional impact of this style, we may never have seen the emergence of such works as Lo Sparadino’s Christ Displaying His Wounds, arguably one of the most startling depictions of Christ ever painted, and a highlight of this particular exhibition. A deviation from the usual romantic themes, we come face to face with the risen Jesus, his eyes searching ours for traces of doubt as his fingers pull apart the edges of his broken flesh.

While some admiring followers successfully managed to harness the power of Caravaggio’s enigmatic chiaroscuro, bringing emotion and depth to familiar themes, others made rather zealous attempts to mimic his composition and light in ways that appear to have missed the point. Rutilio Manetti’s Victorious Earthly Love and its gleaming, rubenesque cherub is a far cry from the hyper-realism of Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, which was sadly absent from the exhibit. Light falters without dark, as Manetti’s piece shows, and nothing bridges the gap between the mortal and immortal like using a flesh-and-blood model — something many artists of the time still deemed unnecessary and vulgar.

Inclusion of pieces like Manetti’s is an effective move on the part of the curator. Without frailty there cannot be strength, and there is no better way to underline Caravaggio’s electrifying intensity than to contrast it against the outdated practices he sought to break away from. There is no cherry-picking when it comes to spirit — to embrace the painting is to embrace the painter, and any attempt to sanitize a vision as remarkably wicked as Caravaggio’s is simply doomed to fail.