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Dark visions

Emerging at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was anxious to reclaim the territory it lost to northern Reformation, the church put its faith in a faithless, flick-knife wielding, brawling bisexual to illustrate their message. Despite the scandal, it paid off brilliantly.

Mysterious, violent, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) was the original black clad artistic type who swung both ways in the bedroom and was dead at only 39. Caravaggio had as many brushes with the law as he had with canvas and his police record was as long as his artistic credits. 

Caravaggio’s talent was undeniable and before long he had attracted the appropriately high calibre patronage of Cardinal Francesco del Monte in 1595. Del Monte was one of the most cultivated collectors of the time. No sooner had he moved to Rome than he was made advisor to the Medici family and his own patronage of the young Caravaggio acted as a calling card to the Roman elite.

In 1545, the Pope had instigated the Council of Trent to counter the reforms incited by Martin Luther in northern Europe. To counter Luther’s ideas that the individual’s faith in God was the new measure, the Council decreed that Christ’s passion and final suffering were the focus of religious devotion. The Council prescribed artistic reforms along these lines calling for depictions of the life of Christ and his followers and condemning the pagan themes that had emerged with the return to classical form that was the hallmark of the Renaissance. Depictions of nudity, erotic and homoerotic subject matter were also condemned although, especially in Caravaggio’s art, they hardly disappeared from sacred or secular art.

Caravaggio had made something of a reputation with his combined still life and figure studies. By 1595 they had increased in their virtuosity and daring until he was able to capture the lustre of a ripe cherry, the split second of darting lizard in mid bite, the wince of a boy being bitten and combine them into a picture of stunning if somewhat homoerotically charged spontaneity.

The squirming Boy bitten by a Lizard was painted at exactly the time that Caravaggio entered the service of Cardinal del Monte while the cardinal was preparing to launch him into the right artistic circles. According to legend, Caravaggio was homosexual and most of his boy paintings certainly support that legend. Del Monte was also thought to have taken to him as a source of homoerotic paintings for his own collection. This is the first of the scandals and paradoxes in Caravaggio’s rise to fame as one of the greatest of religious painters. As soon as he began to acquire religious commissions he merely continued working in his normal studio routine. Although he was now painting saints, he painted them in the nude using models plucked from the street during expeditions to taverns which invariably ended in a brawl.

Christ Crowned with Thorns in his famous cinematic ‘spot lit’ style were much admired during his lifetime and much imitated immediately following his death by ‘caravaggists’ eager to invest seemingly innocuous scenes with dramatic intensity. It is no surprise that the likes of Claudio Monteverdi and, further afield, William Shakespeare were developing and perfecting the parallel arts of music and drama with equally brilliant innovations. In Monteverdi’s case the innovation was even a new style of combined music and drama that we now know as opera.

Although he was superseded as the new century gave way to the extravagant Baroque period, the drama and directness of his later paintings was re-evaluated in the 20th century for it’s cinematic quality. His ability to capture a frozen moment of horror in the passion of Christ or one of the saints was even an influence on the sensuous horror in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Gibson calls these moments ‘Violent, dark, spiritual and with an odd whimsy to them’ and instructed his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel to make the movie look like Caravaggio paintings.

Michael Magnusson is an artist, art therapist and critic.



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