Michelangelo da Caravaggio

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Michelangelo da Caravaggio

Circa 1597; oil on canvas; 322 x 340 cm (126 x 133 in); Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

This is one of a set of three paintings - the other two are the Inspiration of St Matthew (altarpiece) and the Martyrdom of St Matthew (on the right) -that adorn the Contarelli Chapel. This painting, situated on the left-hand wall, shows the unexpected calling of Matthew, a tax collector, by Jesus. The scene takes place in a room with bare plaster walls. Below and to the left of a dusty window, a mature man (Matthew) and three very-young men are seated around a table; a fourth, much older man is standing beside Matthew. Caravaggio creates a sense of modernity by using flamboyant, contemporary dress. Towards the right, standing, with his back three-quarters turned to us, is St Peter; behind him stands Jesus, his head turned towards Matthew and his right arm and hand stretched out towards him. The order in which Caravaggio executed the paintings for the Chapel of Cardinal Contarelli is not clear. It is possible that the Inspiration of St Matthew was commissioned as early as 1591. The Calling of St Matthew can be dated from between 1598 and 1599- In the interval between the two works, a great rivalry developed between Caravaggio and Giuseppe Cesari (who was responsible for the ceiling frescos) over who was to be given the task to decorate the walls. During this time, Caravaggio's work showed a slow progression from a light tonality to a fully mature dramatic style based on strong contrasts of light and shade.

The Calling of Saint Matthew
Oil on canvas, 322 x 340 cm
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The detailed treatment of the five figures around the tax collector's table holds the viewer's attention: the flashy style of the youths' clothes and the opulent garments of the older men: the hands on the coins: and the various complexions and hair, which differ according to age. The greed of the two figures on the left is conveyed by their failure to participate in or even notice- the event that unfolds so close lo them. Yet all this detail, and the extraordinary skill with which it is depicted, does not detract from the cohesion and vigour of the whole picture - nor from its significance.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail)

The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail)

The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail)

Caravaggio, a notoriously violent and rebellions man, lived at a time when tragic social and religions conflicts, new ideologies, and economic and political upheavals were changing the face of Europe. More uncompromising than almost any other artist, his fervent, radical approach to religion made him hostile to the hierarchy and officialdom of the Roman Catholic Church. Here, the religious message is ambiguous. God's grace falls upon a sinner, Matthew, and the redeeming gesture of Jesus is repeated, in a lower key, by Peter father of the Roman Church. The viewer may infer from this that he or she, too, may be called by God at any time.

The Calling of Saint Matthew (detail)


St Catherine of Alexandria
c. 1598
Oil on canvas, 173 x 133 cm
Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

Portrait of Maffeo Barberini
Oil on canvas, 124 x 99 cm

Martha and Mary Magdalene
c. 1598
Oil on canvas, 97,8 x 132,7 cm
Institute of Arts, Detroit

Judith Beheading Holofernes
c. 1598
Oil on canvas, 145 x 195 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

Taking of Christ
c. 1598
Oil on canvas, 133,5 x 169,5 cm
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Oil on canvas mounted on wood, 60 x 55 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Oil on canvas, 110 x 92 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

The Lute Player
c. 1600
Oil on canvas, 100 x 126,5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter
Oil on canvas, 230 x 175 cm
Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome


Martyrdom of St. Matthew


The theatre of cruelty

(Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen)

The Martyrdom of St Matthew
Oil on canvas, 323 x 343 cm
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

It was Michelangelo Merisi's first large commission, given to the young artist solely because a finished work was needed as quickly as possible: the Holy Year of 1600 was nigh and half a million pilgrims from throughout Europe were expected in Rome. It was essential that the world centre of Christianity make a great impression on the visitors, thus spreading abroad the glory of God, as well as that of Pope Clement VIII and his triumphant Counter-Reformation.
Sacked in 1527 by Charles V's mercenaries, Rome had been rebuilt more beautifully and on an even grander scale than before. The cathedral of St. Peter's was already finished; wide streets, splendid palaces and countless new churches added to the town's attractions. Interrupted only by political instability or financial difficulty, building had continued for the better part of a century. The foundation stone for San Luigi dei Francesi, for example, the French Church, had been laid in 1518; the church was finally consecrated in 1589. On the very threshold of the year of celebrations, however, and much to the annoyance of the French priests, work on the fifth and last chapel on the left - the Contarelli chapel, named after its founding donor Cardinal Matteu Cointrel - was not finished.
The renowned artist Guiseppe Cesari d'Arpmo, who, during the nineties, had decorated its ceiling with frescos, had run out of time before painting the walls. Like the majority of famous artists during the Roman building boom, Cesari's time was taken up painting more prestigious work. On 23rd July 1599, the works committee decided to offer the commission to the 27-year-old, almost unknown painter Michelangelo Mensi, self-styled "da Caravaggio" after his native town. By the end of the year, and at a total cost of 400 scudi, the young artist was to deliver two oil paintings, each measuring 323 by 343 centimetres: the Calling of the tax-collector Matthew by Christ, and his Martyrdom. The instructions he received, essentially those conceived for Cesari, demanded an act of homage to the donor's patron saint. The contract for the Martydom stipulated a "spatious interior of some depth, like a temple, with an altar at the head ... Here St. Matthew is murdered by soldiers while celebrating mass ... and falls, dying but not yet dead; while in the temple a large number of men and women ... most of them horrified by the dreadful deed ... show terror or sympathy."
The paintings were officially unveiled in July 1600, six months overdue. The manner in which Caravaggio had interpreted his "instructions" caused a "considerable stir" far beyond the walls of the Holy City. Four years later, news had spread to the distant Netherlands, where Carel van Mander reported that a certain Agnolo van Caravaggio was "doing extraordinary things in Rome".

Gentle angels for a cardinal

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (detail)

A palm branch, the symbol of divine gratitude, is proffered to the dying martyr by a young boy. The gesture, far from triumphant, betrays a certain degree of caution: leaning from a cloud, he supports himself with one hand, perhaps unsure his wings will carry him. The angel, with flaxen locks and pearly skin, is one of those gentle creatures so characteristic of Caravaggio's early work: dreamy strummers of lutes, scantily dressed and crowned with vine-wreaths, raising chalices of wine or holding ecstatic saints in their arms. Whether antique Bacchus or Christian angel, these figures reflected the taste and preferred company of Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549-1626), who, according to a contemporary biographer, "was enamoured of the company of young men".
For several years the church leader offered his protection to the young artist, providing lodgings, bread and wine in his Roman palace, situated diagonally opposite the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The Cardinal gave him regular pocket money, too, and helped him out of the difficulties into which the artist's aggressive behaviour repeatedly plunged him. Born in 1571 near Bergamo, Caravaggio is reputed to have fled from Milan to Rome in 1592 to escape the consequences of a bloody quarrel. Once in Rome, he was forced to sell his paintings on the street, between "marrows, nougat, cleaning utensils, drums, water and heads of veal". But soon enough, according to van Mander, he had "climbed from poverty through hard work" - assisted, of course, by the protection of his patron, for whom, from c. 1594, he painted a series of beautiful boys, many of which betrayed Caravaggio's own features.
The influential cardinal also helped his protege acquire his first big commission. Initially, Caravaggio had painted relatively small works with few figures for del Monte's private rooms. The two paintings of St. Matthew, on the other hand, would be seen by a large number of spectators: some 300,000 French pilgrims visited their church in Rome during the Holy Year, many of them staying at the hospice there.
The six-month delay with which Caravaggio delivered the works can be put down to his unfamiliarity with certain technical problems posed by the task. He was not only required to adapt his skills to a large-scale format, but had also gathered little previous experience of integrating such a large number of figures: seven in the Calling, and 13 in the Martyrdom. Furthermore, Caravaggio had difficulty calculating the perspective for the "spacious interior of some depth". With the help of X-rays, art historians have discovered several earlier versions of the Martyrdom, in which the artist experimented with smaller protagonists in various different arrangements. Apparently, the Apostle was first shown standing, then kneeling, while at his side a fierce angel, armed with book and sword, was ready to confront the murderer. Later, and possibly in the interests of decency, the naked heavenly messenger was banned to his cloud, where he duly abstained from further intervention, leaving the martyr to his fate, and executioner.

To bear witness and die for one's beliefs

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (detail)

Defenceless, the old man lies on the ground, waiting for the mortal blow. He is wounded, his robe stained with blood. While all around him flee in panic, the Apostle meets death "freely", in the name of his faith, as befitted a martyr. A "witness" to the truth of Christ's divine revelation, he looks his murderer straight in the eyes.
In order to heighten the dramatic quality of the scene, Caravaggio departs from tradition. According to the Golden Legend of the saint's life, his executioner stabbed him "from behind with his sword while St. Matthew stood before the altar, his arms outstretched in prayer". The Apostle, preaching "in the land of the Moors", had dared deny the heathen King Hirtacus access to "a virgin devoted to the Lord", thus incurring the King's wrath. "While mass was held, the King sent his henchman ... thus the martyrdom was fulfilled."
Caravaggio's contemporaries were exposed to dramatic accounts of martyrdom not only in the legends of saints. In the age of religious struggle in Europe, both Protestants and Catholics suffered and died every day on behalf of their confessions. In England under Elizabeth I, the death penalty awaited anyone discovered holding mass. As a result some 40 priests were tortured and executed. By the beginning of the 17th century their portraits were exhibited at the "English College" in Rome, while the "German College", too, had five martyrs to its name.
These institutions had been set up by the pope to provide special training for young priests sent on dangerous missions to Protestant countries. The destiny of the pupils was a source of envy: "Could I but die the death of these just men!", enthused the church historian Baronius. They were solemnly addressed as the "Flores Marty-rum" - the "flower of martyrs".
At that time, the Catholic church was attempting to regain those countries it had lost to Protestantism during the first half of the 16th century. Counter-Reformation strategy involved the mobilization of "Christian soldiers", who were ready to fight and, if necessary, die for their faith. The early Christian martyrs were held up as shining examples, especially after 1578, when a landslide revealed part of the forgotten Roman catacombs, rekindling popular interest in the heroic, founding years of the Church. Excavations began, and the catacombs were made the object of extensive research. During the celebrations of 1600, a host of pilgrims, in awe-struck reverence, followed in the underground tracks of the early Christians.
Resurgent interest in the martyrs, together with their suitability for propaganda purposes, prompted the pope to order a new edition of the martyrological catalogue, a 'work in progress since the 5th century. In 1584, Baronius' "Roman Martyrology" appeared in several volumes, a standard work of monumental stature, lending to the old legends the veneer of historical truth. Countless new editions of the work have since been published, most recently in 1956.
However, the Protestant side also had its martyrs, in whose honour, as early as 1563, John Foxe published his Book of Martyrs. On St. Bartholomew's Eve of the year after Caravaggio's birth, thousands of Huguenots were massacred in Paris for their beliefs. In 1600, when the painting of St. Matthew was unveiled, a man who regarded himself as a martyr was burnt to death at the stake: Giordano Bruno, referred to as a "magician" and "unrepentant, stubborn heretic", died neither for the Catholic nor Protestant faith, but for freedom of thought and science.

Bloodthirsty murder, fear and horror

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (detail)

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (detail)

The English College frescos have long since vanished, but in 1582 they showed the history of England reduced to a series of ghastly scenes of torture and execution. It was at this time, too, that the Jesuits ordered the decoration of San Stefano Rotondo, a church belonging to the German College, with 30 gory scenes illustrating the persecution of Christians. Their motivation for doing so was largely educational: investing in the persuasive power of the senses and imagination, the Jesuits used art in their educational establishments to encourage the militancy of their pupils, at the same time acquainting them with their probable fate. Confronted daily, whether in the library, refectory or chapel, with sights of terror and suffering, the future martyrs were accustomed to the notion of martyrdom at an early age.
"One should not be afraid", wrote Cardinal Paleotti in his "De Imaginibus Sacris" (Of Sacred Images) in 1594, "to paint the torments of the Christians in all their horror: with wheels, grates, racks and crosses. The Church wishes, in this manner, to glorify the courage of its martyrs. But it wishes also to fire the souls of its sons." This was in accordance with the aims of the Counter-Reformation: at its final session in 1563, the Council of Trent had decided to use art to spread the Catholic faith among the uneducated masses. The clergy were required (as in the case of the Contarelli chapel) to draw up detailed proposals for paintings, and to ensure not only their precise execution in the churches, but also their theological correctness, intelligibility and decorum. Paintings which indulged in the horrific minutiae of torture and suffering did not offend against these regulations, but responded rather to widespread predilection.
Renaissance artists had celebrated beauty and harmony, giving little space to human suffering or death in their work. Yet it was precisely these phenomena which appear to have fascinated both artists and the public towards the end of the 16th century - possibly due to Spanish influence, for Spain ruled most of Italy at the time. Pain, torment, death, cruelty and violence not only had a considerable impact on art, but were part and parcel of everyday life. Public executions were turned into pompous displays. The most exciting of these is said to have taken place on 11 September 1599, when members of the Cenci family were executed for patricide and the murder of a husband: a bloodthirsty, highly ritualized piece of theatre, in which both executioner and victim performed with great aplomb.
In dear contrast to the peaceful scene depicted in his Calling, Caravaggio's Martyrdom, too, celebrates violence. At the centre of the scene, with his long sharp weapon, stands the athletic, half-naked figure of the king's henchman. With a fearful scream from his gaping mouth he storms into the church. Throwing the martyr to the ground, he steps across his body to deliver the deadly blow. In the commotion, bystanders flee in panic. A frightened boy screams. The full light falls on the terrible beauty of the executioner's body. While the others, including his victim, merely react to the assault, the assailant remains unchallenged: he is the sole source of energy, the seductive, irresistible force of aggression incarnate.

A "wild" and violent painter

The Martyrdom of St Matthew (detail)

Screams of terror assume a prominent place in a number of Caravaggio's other works, painted in the same period as the Martyrdom: the gaping mouth of the Medusa's severed head, for example, or Holofernes' screaming mouth as Judith cuts off his head. By the turn of the century, images of horror had begun to replace the gentle youths of his earlier work. According to Caravaggio's American biographer Howard Hibbard, images of decapitation and torture now began to dominate his work to an alarming extent. The wildness of his personality had exploded into his art.
Police archives in Rome confirm the "wild" and violent nature of the man. His name turns up on record for the first time shortly after he delivered the Contarelli painting: on 19 November 1600 the artist "assaulted" a certain Girolamo Stampa, whom he "beat several times with a stick". According to one contemporary source, after spending several hours of each day in his studio, Caravaggio "would appear in various quarters of the city, his sword at his side as though he were a professional swordsman". Caravaggio went for his dagger at the slightest provocation. He spent a considerable amount of his time in front of the magistrate, and his patrons found it increasingly difficult to protect him from the consequences of his violent temper. They were finally forced to give up when he killed a man, on 28 May 1606, in a quarrel over a wager. Caravaggio was forced to flee the Papal State, spending the rest of his life on the run, a tragic figure. He died in 1610, a mere decade after the two paintings of St. Matthew had brought his artistic career to fruition.
In his Martydom, the painter has lent his own features to the legendary King Hirtacus. According to a contemporary, Caravaggio was "ugly ... pale of visage, with abundant hair and sparkling eyes set deep in his face". The heathen potentate is shown in the background of the painting, observing the murder of the Apostle by his henchman. According to the "Golden Legend", his punishment was fitting: "the victim of horrible leprosy, and unwilling to let himself be healed, he fell on his own sword."
Yet it was with this rather dismal figure that the 28-year-old Caravaggio, whose paintings of St. Matthew caused "a considerable stir", identified. New commissions for work confirmed his success. As early as 1600, he was asked to paint works for another chapel.
Caravaggio's work nonetheless remained controversial. Though the theme and violence of the Martydom were in
keeping with contemporary trends, their execution proved a shock to the Roman art world: this was a radical departure from the prevailing tone in fresco painting, whose scope was restricted to the bland repetition of patterns, attitudes and gestures in place since the early Renaissance. It undoubtedly needed an artist as idiosyncratic as Caravaggio to break the conventional mould: somebody, for example, who painted living models - a revolutionary innovation in 1600; or someone who put light and shadow to such novel use.
It is quite possible that Caravaggio's reasons for plunging entire areas of his canvas into inky blackness were entirely practical: on the one hand, cover of darkness enabled him to cast a veil over the technical difficulties he encountered with perspective; on the other, starkly accentuated areas of bright light were effective in attracting spectators to an otherwise inconspicuous chapel. The scenes depicted in his paintings in the chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi made an impression not only on the pilgrims of the Holy Year of 1600; their realism, high dramatic tension and masterful handling of light and shadow gave a powerful impetus to painting throughout Europe.



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