Today marks the start of a new series here on Accessible Art History: Artist Spotlight. These posts will focus on specific artists and how they changed the trajectory of art. The first installment will feature Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio, who is almost always known by his last name. He was born in 1571 in Milan, but spent much of his life and career in Rome. Caravaggio is best known Baroque artists and many art historians consider him to be one of the first modern artists.
Caravaggio is best known (and loved) for his dramatic use of light and shadow and intense emotion. He almost always used live models and skipped sketching, instead preferring to start directly on the canvas. Caravaggio achieved quite a high level of fame during his time in Rome. His works can be found in churches and museums all over the city. However, Caravaggio also had a legendary temper. In a brawl of a tennis match, he killed a man and was forced to flee the city. Only a few years later, in 1610, he would die under mysterious circumstances. Caravaggio left behind about 50 paintings and we are going to examine three that showcase his incredible talent.
The Calling of St. Matthew
In 1599, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a series of paintings featuring St. Matthew. They were for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. This painting, which shows the moment when Jesus chose St. Matthew to join His ministry. The most famous aspect is the beam of light that pours out of the right side of the work. Jesus is nearly obscured in shadow, His hand (which should bring to mind Michelangelo's Creation of Man), is the only part of his body illuminated. The light focus on St. Matthew, a tax collector, who points at himself in shock. How was he, a sinner, supposed to help Jesus spread the Word of God? This poignant moment, filled with self-doubt and shock, is given a glimmer of hope with Caravaggio's use of light.
Conversion on the Way to Damascus
The Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome was purchased and restored by a member of the Vatican as a personal chapel. One of the works that decorates it is the Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Painted around 1601, it shows Saul laying on the ground. He just feel off of his horse, knocked with the force of God's word. This is the moment when Saul, a Jewish man who persecuted early Christians, becomes Paul, one of the founders of the early church. He raises his hands in ecstasy, the light pouring down around him. The viewer can feel the power in this moment that changed the course of Christianity forever.
The Entombment of Christ
The Entombment of Christ is one of Caravaggio's most famous altarpieces. It was originally located at the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (also known as the Chiesa Nuova) in Rome, Italy. But, now a copy sits in its place and the original is in the Vatican museum. This work shows the moment when Jesus' followers are lowering Him into the tomb after the Crucifixion. However, Caravaggio did not choose to show Christ bloodied and battered. In fact, He could almost be sleeping. Instead, the drama comes from the intense mourning of the women in the background. They throw their hands up, asking why this horrific event had been allowed to happen. As with many Baroque works, especially those by Caravaggio, there is a strong, diagonal line and use of chiaroscuro.
Caravaggio is one of the great masters in the history of art. His use of light, shadow, and emotion helped to capture moments on canvas that viewers could relate to. From Matthew's shock at being chosen, to Paul's conversion, and the horror of Christ's death, Caravaggio painted this scenes in a way that would connect with viewers, even centuries after their creation.