Caravaggio’s Sacramental Realism

This summer marks the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death, with an ambitious exhibition of his major works in Rome.

In the 1986 film Caravaggio, the director Derek Jarman takes the turbulent life of a gifted artist as an occasion to reinvent him as a lascivious, romantic- existentialist anti-hero. An irascible man, whose public fortune waxed and waned, who spent much of his life on the run from legal and political authorities, and who died young and tragically just as luck seemed to smile upon him, Caravaggio is ready material for romantic and existentialist recreation.

But this is to miss what is most important about his art—a body of work that constitutes some of the finest religious art ever produced in the West. In fact, Caravaggio’s art demonstrates the falsity of the romantic assumption, exacerbated in post-modernism, of a necessary opposition between stylistic novelty and tradition, between the private aims of the artist and public use of art. Caravaggio blends a distinctive and readily identifiable personal style of painting with subject matters of universal and lasting import. His religious art is decidedly Catholic and counter-reformational in its sacramental realism.

This summer marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (September 1571- July 1610). That the anniversary should prompt a series of new scholarly studies is predictable. What is not so expected is the spread of his popularity among non-academics. An ambitious exhibition of his major works in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale has been, for months now, the hottest ticket in the Eternal City. Elsewhere in Rome, where his works adorn the walls of many churches, tour groups crowd around his paintings, the way visitors to the Louvre jostle for a glimpse of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.”

By contrast with Leonardo, Caravaggio has not enjoyed a constant reputation for artistic excellence. Unlike the more successful artists of his time—the era of great ecclesial patronage of art—Caravaggio was only rarely in public favor during his lifetime. His art spawned a minor school of followers in the years after his death, but public recognition waned not long thereafter. Still, the curt and dismissive judgment of Poussin, who derided Caravaggio as a “vulgar artist,” is hardly the dominant judgment of history. His “Magdalen in Ecstasy” anticipates because it influenced Bernini’s famous “Ecstasy of St. Theresa.” He is now recognized as a source of Rembrandt’s craft. Yet, only in the last century has he witnessed a serious revival; the critical reappraisal of his work has led some now to rank him with the greatest artists of all time.

His early paintings—mainly on non-religious topics such as fortune tellers, card players, musicians, and Bacchus—exhibit clear skill but little to suggest enduring fame. Only after ecclesial patronage made possible his painting of grand religious themes did his enormous gifts become evident. It was only toward the turn of the century, in the years immediately preceding 1600 and not much more than 10 years before his death, that he became a serious artist, producing astonishing canvasses in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily. He moved so many times because he was fleeing various charges against him. His career began in Milan, the city of his birth. In what would become a pattern, Caravaggio fled Milan for Rome after quarrels and the wounding of a police officer. In Rome, he spent his days painting and his nights drinking and brawling with the seedier elements in society. He left Rome for Naples after a late-night fight over a tennis match in which he killed an opponent. In the short time he was there, however, he left his mark on Rome.

Of all the churches in Rome that feature the art of Caravaggio, none is as big a drawing card as the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Commissioned in 1599 and causing an immediate sensation on delivery in 1600, the chapel features Caravaggio’s paintings on the life of St. Matthew, including the internationally recognized “Calling of St. Matthew.” The painting captures the dramatic moment when Christ enters the room where Matthew and his fellow tax collectors are gathered and points at Matthew. Christ has no halo or glow; instead, Caravaggio uses natural light, flooding in from an unseen source behind Christ and falling at an angle that traces a line from Christ’s head, past his extended arm, and landing on Matthew’s perplexed facial expression. Entering with Christ and situated between him and the others already in the room is Peter, who along with Christ points in the direction of Matthew. In this way, Caravaggio highlights the role of Peter as imitator and mediator of Christ. Caravaggio compresses a number of dramatic elements into the scene: the drama of Christ’s entrance, of Matthew’s befuddled reception of the call, and of the indifference of the other tax collectors, whose eyes remain lowered, fixated on the money on the table in front of them. The highlight of the scene is Matthew’s gesture. He points at himself as if to say, “Who, me?” The difference between Matthew’s response and the oblivion of the other tax collectors underscores the dramatic gap between those who have ears to hear and eyes to see and those who do not.

Caravaggio was a master of chiaroscuro, the use of sharp contrast between dark and light, as evident in “The Calling of St. Matthew,” wherein the light falls on all but some resist it, keeping their faces turned toward the shadows. Caravaggio combined a gift for perspective, depth, and contours with a remarkable ability to depict motion. Unlike many Renaissance painters, who inserted classical and biblical scenes within lush, pastoral landscapes or intricately constructed cities, Caravaggio offers sparse backgrounds and stark settings. He also concentrates on ordinary-looking characters whose blemishes and physical imperfections are highlighted rather than eliminated. If there is an artistic analogue to his art, it would have to be a sparsely populated theatrical stage. In Caravaggio’s silent theater, groupings of characters, their gestures and facial expressions, are the basic vehicles of communication.

Scholars have sought, without any definitive success, to uncover the theological sources of Caravaggio’s particular religious vision. The dramatic immersion of the viewer in the midst of the biblical scene calls to mind the practice of “composition of place,” recommended by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius explains, “in a visible contemplation or meditation—as, for instance, when one contemplates Christ our Lord, Who is visible—the composition will be to see with the sight of the imagination the corporeal place where the thing is found which I want to contemplate.”

Caravaggio’s religious works immerse the viewer in the rich, concrete, sensible realities of scriptural events. This is evident in his painting, “The Taking of Christ,” a work assumed lost or destroyed until 1990, when it was identified as an authentic Caravaggio by a curator hired to clean a painting in a Jesuit residence in Dublin. A crowded scene of Christ, Judas, soldiers, and at least one onlooker (Caravaggio), the painting features sharp contrasts between dark and light, the latter from an unknown source, and a jumble of limbs at odd and violent angles to one another. The work captures the moment when Judas, here seen moving toward Christ, whose head is slightly averted in sorrow, betrays Christ with a kiss. The viewer experiences the mockery of justice in a scene of ominous violence, characterized by incoherent and irrational motion.

In another remarkable piece from the same period, “Entombment,” Caravaggio plays off the famous “Pieta” of Michelangelo. Here, however, Mary appears worn with age and Christ’s body is much larger, and not at all idealized. The disciple John and Nicodemus struggle to maintain their hold on Christ’s body. John’s hands touch the bare flesh of Christ—an unusual depiction at the time. His grip appears to reopen the wound in Christ’s side. The size and angle of Christ’s body make it appear as if his body will emerge from the plane of the painting and onto the space of the viewer. Here we see the counter-reformation theology of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist on display. Fittingly for a painting to be displayed above an altar in a Catholic church, Christ’s body is being offered to those at Mass. Further implicating the viewer in the scene is Nicodemus’ line of vision, which attends not to Christ’s body but to the viewer, as if to offer reception of the body to the viewer.

By contrast, the eyes of the disciples in “Supper at Emmaus” look neither at the viewer nor at Christ, but gaze in absolute wonder at the bread and the wine and Christ’s gesture of blessing. Their gestures and astonished facial expressions communicate the shocked recognition occurring at the moment of Christ’s words of blessing. What they “see” is Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Separated from Christ and his followers is the innkeeper, the only character standing and the only character who continues to look, with unchanged expression, at Christ. The separation of those who see from those who do not anticipates different viewers of these works of sacred art and invites the viewer to identify with one character or another in the scene.

From Naples, Caravaggio moved to Malta, where he sought the patronage of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. He was inducted as a knight and received important commissions. Soon his volatile behavior earned him an arrest, imprisonment, and expulsion from the Order of the Knights of Malta. He fled again, this time to Sicily, where his paintings can be viewed in a number of churches. From the time he left Rome, he continued to seek a pardon for his crime there; eventually, when it looked as if that might materialize, he made plans to return, through Naples, to Rome. The details of his last days are murky. What we do know is that he desperately sought passage on a ship to Rome, lost control of his only possessions, a few large canvasses, with which he hoped to restore his artistic status in Rome, and then died of causes still mysterious.

That is certainly the stuff of artistic legend, precisely the sort of legend that feeds romantic visions of artists as necessarily and tragically opposed to the mores of conventional society. But Caravaggio’s art, which is of much greater interest than his sad life, belies romantic tenets, especially those having to do with the puerile contrast between the private expression of the artist and the public purposes of art.

The art historian E.H. Gombrich, in his magisterial The Story of Art, explains that art comes to be about self-expression only after it has been stripped of every other purpose. Great artists produce something new but they do so in conversation with a tradition. As T.S. Eliot puts it, “Tradition involves, in the first place, the historical sense…, a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence…. The historical, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”

In Caravaggio’s art we find a stunning instantiation of—and a strikingly Catholic variant on—what T.S. Eliot calls the union of “tradition and the individual talent.” As he hints in “The Taking of Christ” by identifying himself as the onlooker holding a lantern to illumine the scene, Caravaggio understands the vocation of the artist as mediating a sacred tradition, shedding dramatic light on the truths of redemption history.


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 21 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.