Caravaggio: The Dialogue between Darkness and Light

Caravaggio is the greatest of the Counter Reformation artists, combining intense religious experience with a realism of startling immediacy. His short life (he died at 38), disorderly and often violent, has fascinated modern commentators almost as much as his revolutionary paintings. The protagonist of avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) is a rebel artist who chooses his models from a circle of street toughs and prostitutes, yet their fallible humanity makes their transformation into saints and angels, martyrs and executioners more poignant. Caravaggio’s visual style—with its blatant theatricality, psychological insight and exaggerated chiaroscuro—hit the contemporary art world like a thunderbolt; inspiring Italian, Spanish, French and Flemish artists.


The best place to immerse yourself in Caravaggio is Rome, in its churches and princely collections. But “Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy,” at the Wadsworth Atheneum (March 6–16, 2013), offers a rare stateside opportunity to explore his aesthetic, with five paintings by the master and thirty by his followers, known as “caravaggisti.” The centerpiece of the exhibition may be the Atheneum’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (c. 1595). Typically for Caravaggio, the scene is nocturnal. The subject is taken from Francis’s vision of a six-winged crucified seraph, which left him marked with the stigmata Caravaggio’s version is less bizarre, more naturalistic and intimate. The brown-robed saint swoons in the arms of an adolescent angel, wearing minimal white drapery and stage-prop wings. The figures are dramatically lit from above and pushed so far downstage that Francis seems about to tumble into the viewer’s space, as Christ does in The Deposition (Vatican Museums), as the crucified Peter and Paul, stricken on the road to Damascus, do at Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c. 1604-05, oil on canvas, 68x52 inches, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MissouriSaint Francis is one of Caravaggio’s tenderest and most lyrical images. Other paintings in the show reveal different aspects of his aesthetic. Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (c. 1604–05) depicts the saint—conventionally pictured as a mature, bearded man, covered in animal skins—as a sullen youth, barely covered in a red cloak. Caravaggio was largely uninterested in landscape or the illusion of spatial recession. John is confined to a shallow stage space, against a foliage backdrop, yet the individual plants at his feet are observed with a hallucinatory clarity.

The other Caravaggio paintings emphasize psychological interaction. Martha and Mary Magdalene (1597–98) is a double portrait: the plain sister of Lazarus remains in the shadows, while the more worldly, if later penitent, Magdalene shines in a sumptuous dress and holds a mirror, emblem both of vanity and introspection. The Denial of Saint Peter is a three-character drama organized by light. The soldier in armor who questions Peter stands in darkness, the maidservant who pointed him out is in half-shadow, and Peter’s betrayal happens in a glaring spotlight. Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1609–10) is eerily calm, a study in the aftermath of violence. Caravaggio understood the terror of violence: he shows Judith decapitating Holofernes, who bellows as the blood spurts. But the Baptist wears an expression of calm as his head is placed on the coppery gold charger. The enigmatic Salome turns away, strangely aloof as she receives the prize. Only the executioner, a tough-looking individual, furrows his brow and shows a hint of compassion.

Carlo Saraceni, The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, c. 1610, oil on canvas, 53x38 inches, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Ahmanson FoundationAs this exhibition makes clear, the Caravaggisti were rarely just imitators of a fashionable style. They translated Caravaggio’s innovations into a variety of personal idioms. Carlo Saraceri’s The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (c. 1610) places the three characters—saint between delivering angel and executioner—on a shallow stage. The saint looks up at the adolescent angel, who descends on a cloud, ignoring the man with the sword behind her. The figures’ gestures and the light raking the back wall strengthen the diagonal dynamic of the composition. Musical instruments, Cecilia’s attributes, are depicted in the foreground. It’s a handsome tableau, but it lacks the dramatic ambiguity Caravaggio captured in his Martrydom of Saint Matthew (San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome), where the saint’s raised arm seems to be simultaneously warding off the executioner’s blow and reaching for the angel’s palm.

Simon Vouet works in a smoother, more classical style than Caravaggio, but Vouet's Saint Jerome and the Angel (c. 1622) benefits from the master’s advocacy of bold chiaroscuro. Brilliant light strikes the angel’s wings and elaborate robes, but his face is lost in shadow as he leans over the aged saint. George de la Tour developed a signature motif from Caravaggio’s tenebrist legacy. His Magdelene with the Smoking Flame (c. 1640) became a definitive image of the penitent saint. There are plenty of portraits of Magdalene histrionically rolling her eyes and weeping copiously—the name Magdalene is the root of the world maudlin. But George de la Tour depicts her sitting quietly in her hermit’s cell, gazing, in profile perdu, at a candle, the picture’s only source of illumination. It’s a study in a life of introspection.

One of Caravaggio’s distinctive ploys was to place his will-rounded, boldly lit figures in front of a black void. The effect can be dramatic. In Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1621–24), the two women are caught in the glare against the dark backdrop. They look to left and right as if afraid of being caught; the pale head lies in the basket between them. Judith still holds her sword, and the gorgeous red and gold brocade of her dress is enhanced by the darkness. It’s a worldly picture, with a strong narrative pulse.

Francisco de Zubarán, in contrast, uses the black backdrop to create a timeless space. His Martyrdom of Saint Serpion (1628) places the saint right up against the picture plane. His hands are bound by ropes and chains in a pose similar to crucifixion, and his head drops, but there is no hint of suffering. His eyes are closed, and the heavy folds of his white robes are immaculate. A trompe l’oeil note “pinned” to the surface identifies him. Zuburán’s otherworldly realism and deep piety seems alien to Caravaggio’s world of conflicted motives, but both artists found in the dialogue between darkness and light a vehicle for expression.

Caravaggio acknowledged that the world was a dark place, dangerous, dirty and rife with sin. But he believed in the power of light, intermittently pointing the path to sanctity or blazing in revelation. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut 06103. Telephone (860) 278-2670.


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