Saints and Sinners
Caravaggio the painter was a public sinner. He
was in and out of jail and finally a wanted man fleeing
Why do we today like his paintings so much?
His art has been ignored and despised at different times
throughout the centuries.
of Sai8nt Mathew, San Luigi dei Franchesi,
He posed sinners as saints. Is it because we
are all part saint, and part sinner that we understand his art.?
He painted the most unlikely saints, previous sinners.
Like Saint Mathew, tax collector for the Romans, and Saul,
Pharisee who became
He knew sinners. Some say that his murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni was over a bet on a tennis match. More likely it is because Tomassoni was a pimp, and Caravaggio’s girl friend at the time was working the streets. It was a gang fight.
He painted religious dramas for the Counter
Reformation Catholic Church that was becoming a church for the
people, especially in
Pilgrim Madonna and Child,
council of Trent that ended in 1545 Reified the making and use of
images in churches and counteracted the iconoclasm of the
Reformation. The stage was set for a new painter to tell the same
old truths of the faith in a new way. “Stage” is the right word
with regard to Caravaggio, his stories are filled with drama and
was no indication that he, with his Lombard still life training in
oil paint and his volatile personality, would be the artist who
would invent the direction of religious painting that would be
followed for the next centuries.
connection between his art and his street life began shortly after
he came to Rome from his town Caravaggio and from Milan. The
paintings were of card sharks and musicians and plaintive shirtless
boys looking at the viewer. Then
out of nowhere came his career changing comission to make three
paintings of Saint Mathew for the French Church, San Luigi dei
he creates a new genre, dynamic
compositions with realistic figures telling a story.
the first, The Calling of
Saint Mathew, the light joins and reinforces his narration, it
tells us where to look, and it tells us what is happening.
The same models that he painted as card players are now
counting money. On the
right, Jesus points to Saint Mathew with a hand remeniscent of God
pointing to infuse Adam with life in Michelangelo’s fresco from
the Sistine Chapel. We
can imagine the bolt of life giving energy, like lightning, coming
from God’s hand in the
Creation of Adam. In The
Calling of Saint Mathew, the gesture is more like a “Hey,
I’m talkin’ ta you Mathew” with a casual but athoratative air
invented gestures to tell the story and to reveal character. He did
not often use the stock and tried gestures that were a part of
Seventeenth Century Italian Painting.
He was so good with these inventions that we always
understand what is going on right away.
historian Rudolf Wittkower remarks –“As one would expect,
traditional gestures are abandoned and emotions are expressed by a
simple folding of the hands, by a head held pressed between the palm
or bowed in silence and sorrow. When ample gestures are used, as in
the Raising of Lazarus,
they are not borrowed from the stock of traditional rhetoric,…”
the Raising of Lazarus
Christ points in the same way as he did choosing Saint Mathew but
here he leans back a little as a puppeteer would, as if he were
levitating his friend Lazarus with strings.
The pose of Lazarus is something that could only be known by
an artist who had seen death in the streets.
Raising of Lazarus, National
intersection of religious narrative and autobigraphical truth would
continue in the later works. So much so that it is difficult to
separate out or ignore the personal references.
He won’t let us forget the sword fight.
Again and again he chooses to paint violent martyrdoms and
Old Testament decapatations.
life experiences of the painter enabled him to look with out
blinking at religious themes that often involve life and death, and
a look at this world and the next. That’s why we like his art. He
takes us to places that we, ourselves, could not imagine.
1. Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy p.22