Sunday, 29 September 2013


“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” - Francis of Assisi

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (29 September 1571? – 18 July 1610?), a revolutionary and unconventional naturalist painter, was born in Caravaggio near Milan, the son of a mason. He showed his talent early and at the age of sixteen, after a brief apprenticeship in Milan, he was studying with d’Arpino in Rome.

During the period 1592-98 Caravaggio’s work was precise in contour, brightly coloured, highly modeled and sculptured in form, like the Mannerists, but with an added social and moral consciousness. By 1600 when he had completed his first public commission the St. Matthew paintings for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, he had established himself as an opponent of both classicism and intellectual Mannerism.

Caravaggio chose his models from the common people and set them in ordinary surroundings, yet managed to lose neither poetry nor deep spiritual feeling. This use of members of the lower classes (including prostitutes) as models to paint saints got him into trouble more than once with the church. His use of chiaroscuro - the contrast of light and dark to create atmosphere, drama, and emotion - was revolutionary. His light is unreal, comes from outside the painting, and creates deep relief and dark shadow.

Caravaggio’s paintings are as exciting in their effect upon the senses as on the intellect. Strangely enough though, his art was not popular with ordinary people who saw in it a lack of reverence. It was highly appreciated by artists of his time and has become recognised through the centuries for its profoundly religious nature as well as for the new techniques that had changed the art of painting.

Though Caravaggio received many commissions for religious paintings during his short life, he led a wild and bohemian existence. In 1606, after killing a man in a fight, he fled to Naples. Unfortunately, he was soon in trouble again, and so was forced to flee to Malta where, finally, after a series of precipitous adventures, died of malaria at the age of thirty-six. His influence, which was first seen in early seventeenth-century Italian art, eventually spread to France, England, Spain and the Netherlands.

The painting above is Caravaggio “Salome with the head of John the Baptist”, painted in 1610 the last year of the artist’s life, and it presently exhibited in the National Gallery, London. It is a characteristic work, showing Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro and exquisite characterisation of this scene from the Bible. The faces tell the whole story, with Salome’s wistful look of repugnance perhaps highlighting her role as a victim of palace intrigues and the awakening of some form of repentance.

The painting was discovered in a private collection in 1959. The early Caravaggio biographer Giovanni Bellori, writing in 1672, mentions a “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” sent by the artist to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta in the hope of regaining favour after having been expelled from the Order in 1608. It seems likely, however, that Bellori was referring to a different painting of the same subject. The handling and the raking light link this painting to works done in Naples during the artist’s brief stay in the city during 1606–1607, an impression confirmed by the resemblance between Salome and the “Virgin in the Madonna of the Rosary”, and between the executioner holding the head of the Baptist and one of the two torturers in “Christ at the Column and The Flagellation of Christ”.


  1. I think Caravaggio was one of the finest artists that ever lived, and my all-time favourite. He may not have had students in the normal sense, but his influence was huge. Starting with the Caravaggisti in Italy and the Netherlands.

    But he would have tried the patience of a saint, with his drinking, womanising, sleeping with teenagers of both genders, violence and lack of polite behaviour. Even to his heroic patrons!

  2. I love Caravaggio - his canvases are so striking!