Caravaggio's profane eye for the sacred

Death of the Virgin, CaravaggioIt was always going to end badly.

He ran with a rough crowd, did Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio. Roaming the cobbles under moonlight, a captive to his vices, the father of modern art was an incident waiting to happen. He promised rivals he would 'fry their balls in oil' and fought duels for the honour of prostitutes. He drew steel on a waiter over a disputed plate of artichokes. He wounded policemen. He killed a man in the street and had to go on the run.

And finally, 400 years ago this week, he died penniless, desperate, feverish and alone.

Yet somehow, during it all, he produced what may be the most arresting, influential and remarkable art in the history of the Christian West.

Caravaggio was the Jim Morrison of his time — Rimbaud with a paintbrush. There was little that was pious or holy about the man with a gift for holy and sacred art. Caravaggio's world was the world of drunken singing, back-alley brawls, prostitutes, thieves and ne'er-do-wells. Not for him the abstinence of the monk. Caravaggio desired the physical, the earthly.

But perhaps if he hadn't been such a drunken, violent, criminal, he may never have been human enough, disturbed enough or repentant of enough sin to produce the terrible realism for which he is justly famous.

Much has been written about Caravaggio's technical genius, his ability to use light and contrast to throw his subjects into stark relief. Artists owe much to his work, not just his arresting colours but also his skill at painting from life without repeated sketches. The direct-to-canvas approach gives his work an immediacy and an intimacy that drags us into the scene, grabs us, forces us to engage with what the artist makes us see.

It is in this drama of the sudden, the explosive, that Caravaggio breaks down the wall between the viewer and the viewed. One cannot be disengaged from his work. Look, he says, look at the great and terrible acts happening, right here, right now! Look on and be amazed. Look on with awe and wonder.

But the genius and the impact of Caravaggio goes far beyond the technical. In his Young Sick Bacchus, we begin to see the early stirrings of his revolution. Bacchus is not a beautiful cherub, as we expect, but a green-tinged, unhealthy adolescent. A closer look shows the filthy fingernails, the rottenness of the grapes, the pallor of the skin. Instead of the divine becoming human, the all too human has been infused with the divine; Caravaggio has reversed the order of things.

This, of course, was an age when art was supposed to represent the higher things, the pure and the noble. But Caravaggio never did things the way they were supposed to be done.

Has there ever been a better statement on our spiritual blindness than his Calling of St Matthew? Among the pickpockets and cardsharps, Christ slips in almost unnoticed. No choirs of angels, no trumpets. The players at the table are too engrossed in their gambling to notice the Son of God — all except Matthew, who points to himself as if to ask, 'Who, me?'

Has there been a more realistic, more human depiction of the Assumption than his Death of the Virgin? Caravaggio's apostles are not sainted men of grace, but rather all too frail, sobbing, silent in their grief. This is no breach of doctrine. Rather, it is acknowledgement that the promises of faith do not remove pain — that doubt and fear and sorrow are not failures of God or man.

Caravaggio brings us, the ordinary soul, into the picture. At the same time as he breaks down the barriers between the observed and the observer. He introduces the common, the profane, into the sacred.

Is there a better expression of the Incarnation?

It is the story of faith that we are found by God where we are — in our inadequacy, our pride, our sin. Truly, we are not left there to our own devices, but while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. And it is for that truth that Caravaggio's art, 400 years after his death, is as worthy today as it was when he lived.

Time and again his art confounds us, grounds us, brings us back to the essence of things. Not for a brawler and drunkard and possibly bipolar criminal is the false piety of haloes or the cleanliness of saints. Caravaggio knew the darkness, knew dirt, knew sin. He knew the taverns and smell of rotting meat, the markets where you could find flesh and fraud and nearly always someone wailing with dysentery. His Christ dwelt among the sick and came to save the lost.

We need to be reminded that Christ called the imperfect — Matthew, the crooked tax collector, for one — not the pious. The church is not a house of saints but a refuge for sinners. Caravaggio gets the intersection of humanity and divinity, of light and dark, just about perfectly right. We can identify with his subjects because he identified with them himself, often to the scandal of patrons and priests.

But in bringing the beggar to the table, Caravaggio's paintings still show us what Jesus of Nazareth was on about with his radical talk of redemption — no haloes, just humanity.

Luke WalladgeLuke Walladge is a writer based in Perth and Melbourne. He has survived Adelaide University, Western Australian politics and two Melbourne winters. He is currently completing his first book.

Topic tags: Luke Walladge, Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, Calling of St Matthew



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Existing comments

Beautifully written Luke. If and when we do settle to imagine what life was like for the people who walked and stumbled with Jesus, it was a very earthy place. Gazing at Caravaggio's brush strokes helps us to recognise that we are weighed down by so much piety and perfection.
Vic O'Callaghan, Springwood | 22 July 2010

Thanks Luke. Sinners are sufferers but not all sufferers are sinners. The daily life of Burmese refugees etc must be so close to the Lord
Ray O'Donoghue | 22 July 2010

Just brilliant! Thank you so much.
Father John Fleming | 22 July 2010

With all due respect to Luke, he upends his own argument by saying that Caravaggio "produced what may be the most arresting, influential and remarkable art in the history of the Christian West."

This is an over-the-top claim that no serious viewer of Christian art can afford to take as fact. Caravaggio has enjoyed enormous popularity in the past couple of decades, with some outstanding books, novels and films that are sometimes more interested in his personal life than his art. There is much prurient interest in his sexuality and the violence of his life which says more about the vicarious nature of the modern viewer than it does about his actual art. Or Christianity.

Another odd thing in Luke's essay is the dismissal of saints as somehow not living in the real world, whereas the very definition of saint in Christian language is a person who has accepted everything, the whole damn catastrophe, and lived life according to their understanding of the teaching of this Jesus person. The iconography of haloes is a separate matter. The means for artists to explain Incarnation is everywhere. One of the best places to start is in the icons of non-Western Orthodoxy.
Desiderius Erasmus | 22 July 2010

impressive article
Terry | 22 July 2010

Thanks Luke. We took our kids to see the Call of Matthew in Rome last week. Home again now, and transported straight back to that dimly lit chapel and its marvelous contents.
Judy Hall | 22 July 2010


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