Caravaggio, Saints and Sinners  

Cornelius Sullivan-Rome

Caravaggio the painter was a public sinner. He was in and out of jail and finally a wanted man fleeing Rome never to return. He killed a man in a sword fight on a Sunday evening in 1606. He died in exile four years later at age thirty nine.

Why do we today like his paintings so much?  His art has been ignored and despised at different times throughout the centuries.   

Calling of Sai8nt Mathew, San Luigi dei Franchesi, Rome

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 Saint Paul , persecutor of Christians, and the man who held the coats of the mob that stoned to death the first Christian martyr, Saint Stephen. 

                                                                                                         Conversion of Saint Paul , Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

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 Rome because of the faith of Saint Philip Neri.  Neri, also known as the Apostle of Rome, lived his holy life in the same streets that Caravaggio fought in.  His apostolate was to all classes, especially to the poor, and his gifts were humility and humor.

                                                                                    Pilgrim Madonna and Child, Church of Saint Augustino , Rome

The 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 movement.

There 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.  

The 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 Franchesi.  Unexpectadly he creates a new genre,  dynamic compositions with realistic figures telling a story.

In 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 from Jesus. 

Caravaggio 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.  

Art 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,…” 1.

In 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 Museum, Messina

The 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.

The 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