Beyond Caravaggio -Discovering the Cult of Caravaggio

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I recently attended the “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition put up by the National Gallery, London. While I do not claim to be an expert on Baroque paintings, I am fascinated by the art of that time, especially by the stories they tell us. I must admit I knew little about Caravaggio before my trip to Italy earlier this year. It was Crucifixion of Saint Peter, situated in the Cerasi Chapel at Santa Maria del Popolo, that introduced me to this talented and enigmatic artist. The horror and tension displayed in the expressions, and the play of light and shadows were truly awe-inspiring.

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(Picture: Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Santa Maria Del Popolo)

The exhibition, while displaying some of the artist’s renowned artworks, focused on the phenomenon of “Caravaggism”. National Gallery’s online glossary describes Caravaggism as “paintings executed in a Caravaggesque style; that is, works which emulate Caravaggio’s naturalism and dramatic lighting effects “. So, equipped with my audio guide, I started my tour into the world that the artist created and inspired.

The first room focuses on Caravaggio’s early years in Rome in which he focused on subjects like still life and pictures of youth. His works are represented by “Boy Peeling Fruit” and “Boy Bitten by a Lizard”. Both paintings while dealing with youthful subjects depict widely different emotions. While the former depicts an almost serene portrayal of a youth in the middle of peeling a fruit, the latter depicts the shock of the youth as he gets an unpleasant surprise. As a glance filled with disbelief and maybe a sense of betrayal looks upon us, one is made aware of the unwanted surprises that the excesses and abandonment of youth might bring.

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(Picture: Boy peeling fruit, Longhi Collection, Rome)

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(Picture: Boy bitten by a lizard, National Gallery, London)

The rest of the room is made up of artists inspired by Caravaggio’s early Roman paintings like his servant,Cecco del Caravaggio’s painting,The Flute Player, reminiscent of the paintings discussed previously. It was, however, Bartolomeo Manfredi’s Gypsy Fortune Teller that attracted me the most as he uses Caravaggio’s style to show the shady underside of the Eternal City. Here, not only is the gypsy’s customer robbed by her accomplice, the gypsy fortune teller herself is robbed by the boy accompanying her customer – thus, making both parties perpetrators and victims.

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(Picture:Gypsy Fortune Teller, Institute of Arts, Detroit)

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(Picture: The Flute Player, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

As I moved onto the next room, again it was Caravaggio’s works that were the center of attention. The room focusses on the collection of Ciriaco Mattei who served as a patron to not just Caravaggio, but also to his numerous followers. Like the rest of the crowd, I too gravitated towards the captivating The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio. Filled with figures in motion, each action contributes to the tension of this tumultuous moment of Christ’s betrayal by Judas. Even as my audio guide says that it remains uncertain whether it is the
moment before or after the fatal kiss of betrayal, my instincts seem to say it is the latter. The anguished man on the far left, the saddened face of Christ, the Soldier reaching towards Christ—all seem to indicate the shock and utter horror in the moment following the betrayal. Almost in contrast to this painting, is the painting beside. It is Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus. While The Taking of Christ seems to be a painting filled with shadows and chock full of figures, The Supper at Emmaus is lighter and lacks the sense of doom that hangs over the former painting. The surprise in this picture is of the revelation of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. The figure on the far right almost reminds me of another artwork depicting an almost contrasting subject, Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

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(The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland)

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(The Supper at Emmaus. National Portrait Gallery, London)

The later rooms carry on the journey of exploring Caravaggism. Rooms 3 and 4 depicted painters who might not just have been inspired by this great artist, but also might have shared personal relationships with him, albeit not always pleasant ones. It is in Room 4 that the object of my interest lies. It is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders, once attributed to Caravaggio like many other paintings of the collection. The guide points out how Gentileschi might have drawn on her own assault to show the vulnerability and fright of Susannah as she is accosted by two lecherous elders in the bath. As one is drawn into the terror of the young maiden, the spectator cannot but sympathize and feel an urge to protect her. By evoking the sympathy of the audience for the female subject, Gentileschi seems to depict the female experience, something that can also be seen in her Judith Beheading Holofernes.

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(Judith Beheading Holofernes. National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples)

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(Susannah and the Elders. Graf von Schonborn Kunstsammlungen, Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, Germany)

Another follower that particularly interested me was Jusepe de Ribera or specifically, his depiction of the human skin. In his paintings St Onuphrius and The Martyrdom of St Bartholomew, the old men are not like Michelangelo’s superhuman specimens but are emaciated, wrinkled and vulnerable, bringing out the realism of the paintings. It was in the same room as Ribera that Caravaggio’s depiction of Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist is located. Although it is muted in it its expressions and movements as compared to The Taking of Christ, nevertheless Caravaggio brilliantly shows the despair and shame that Salome carries in asking for the head of John the Baptist.

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(Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist, National Gallery, London)

As we move onto other rooms, we get an idea of just how spectacular Caravaggio’s fame must have been as we are introduced to non-Italian artists who had never seen Caravaggio’s works but were still inspired by what they had heard of his style. Their distinctiveness from Caravaggio is, however, quite visible, especially in their use of candles although they were depicting the often recurring scenes of youth, gambling and singing from Caravaggio’s early years. Finally, the exhibition comes to a close by a room named “Storytelling”,  brought together  by Caravaggio’s magnificent depiction of John the Baptist in the Wilderness.

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(John the Baptist in the Wilderness. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City)

The exhibition is one exhilarating journey into the cult of Caravaggio. For those knowledgeable in Caravaggism, it is a chance to see many of the prominent artworks of this movement brought together in one place. As for the casual admirer, such as me, it is a chance to learn and to be introduced to many new wonderful artists of the time. I would recommend all such admirers to catch this exhibition which is on till January 2017.

(By Maxine)

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