Caravaggio: The Late Years, National Gallery

Exhibition held early 2005

I’d always had the feeling that, as Caravaggio fled and journeyed through southern Italy, his technique suffered. Somehow, I imagine him applying paint with unprofessional haste; instead of being focussed on the canvas, his eyes would twitch and dart rapidly, always checking the authorities weren’t about to storm in and nab him.

And in such a position, my thinking went, he obviously was not in the correct mental state to repeat the masterpieces of the Roman years. He didn’t have time to organise paints, canvases and ideas. As a result, the colours become more milky, skimmed of the primary brilliance and the stark chiaroscuro that illuminates the Roman paintings, while the characters become ponderous and half-hearted.

Or so I thought. Caravaggio: the Later Years places a stomping big question mark next to that thesis. Certainly, the paintings do not show quite the same consistency as there exists in the pre-1606 work. But whole chapters of his latter oeuvre shine through with the same clarity and intensity that characterises, say, the Contarini Chapel or the del Monte paintings.

Caravaggio, The Raising of Lazarus, 1609, Museo Regionale, Messina.

There were several hypnotic paintings in the exhibition – the silent retreat of the meditative St Francis, the melancholy of the second Supper at Emmaus, the spiralling whiplash composition that animates the Flagellation – but it was the trio of massive canvases in the National Gallery’s central room that took the breath away.

To begin with, their sheer size. The Raising of Lazarus, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Shepherds stand well over three metres tall and towered impressively over the spectator. At last the National Gallery hosts an exhibition where the dimensions of the walls are sympathetic to the paintings.

Of course, size is no testament to quality, and one can think of numerous baroque putti-fests where cramming the surface with joyant, radiant angels serves to make the painting more than faintly ridiculous. But Caravaggio used all this space in a much more effective manner.

Just as he employs dramatic contrasts in light, so he does the same with space. One is struck at how little of the painting features the actual figures of the narrative. There is no attempt to fill the entire canvas with dramatic action. Great chambers of space surround and contrast with the narrative focus of the paintings, those tight balls of human energy.

The Raising of Lazarus is noticeable in particular for the great empty space, nearly half the painting, which sits wordlessly above the actors of the scene. As in a giant Rothko, a sober field of paint, muted by centuries of incense and candle-smoke, hovers in the darkness. And then in the flat, almost relief-like, space beneath, light bursts on to the 13 characters (a coincidence? the original gospel mentions that the apostles follow Jesus to Bethany, but obviously the twelve featured in the painting are not all apostles), crammed into a single, central strip. And once Caravaggio has locked the viewer onto this part of the painting, there is no letting go. Lulling viewers with his manipulation of space, he can unleash the emotional intensity of his characters, an intensity that is magnified several times once jammed into this tiny area.

The group of six characters that cluster around Jesus are particularly astonishing. Seven faces in all, one calm and six torn with emotion, are pressed into a small segment of the painting that is perhaps three percent of its surface. Fleeing from the empty space above, the eye comes across this group and whoosh – is hit by the astonishment, fear, shock and resolve of those following witnessing the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.

Compare this with the formulaic patterns of Poussin, where each actor in the painted narrative has his own little circle of personal space, and the responding emotion of the spectator becomes diffused, switching from raw instinct to rational understanding. Caravaggio grabs the spectator and makes her react before she knows she is reacting.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but the gritty humanity of Caravaggio also shines through. The use of space plays a part in this. Nearly all the action takes place at eye-level. Man’s physical dimensions are clearly mapped out; his position on the ground confirmed. Nobody here is floating to heaven. Indeed, the shaft of light and the gaze of the spectators clearly indicate that any heavenly manifestation takes place outside the frame of the canvas. (It would be interesting to know what is to the left of the painting in its original setting in Messina)

One gets the sense of the crowd, the jostling, the shouting, the shock of the event. How the characters were feeling or what they were doing prior to witnessing this resurrection. Compare again to many other baroque paintings where the presence of the divine is taken for granted and each character is trapped in a permanent reverie of piety. Caravaggio’s characters develop and respond with recognisably human emotions. The astonishment that the figures exhibit reflects not only on the miracle occurring but their doubt, the everydayness of their position, beforehand.

Another feature: I love how Caravaggio has so carefully calibrated the responses of his characters in reaction to their physical position in the scene. I’m struck by the figure at the top left of the left-hand group. Stuck behind the rest of the crowd he has not quite seen all that is happening. He cranes his neck forward to gain a better view and his mouth just begins to open in astonishment. In order to make the character more visible, another artist may have positioned him awkwardly elsewhere, thus making the narrative more explicit but puncturing the sense of realism. Caravaggio, instead, revels in the narrative problem of having so many characters in so small a space and manages to produce spectacular solutions.

The man crouching down to lift open the tombstone is another convincing figure. His neck has turned in response to the shaft of light behind Christ. Obviously, he is witnessing something divine. But Caravaggio does not forget where he came from, what he was doing previously, in picking up the huge stone that covers Lazarus’ tomb. Even in the presence of the divine, the man has to deal with the physical, the earthly. He remains crouching, the tendons in his fingers strain as he pulls on the heavy slab.

It requires a special visual intelligence to present so many expressive faces and bodies, capable of being understood by the spectator without sacrificing their potency and realism. And to fit so much into such a tiny space! Famously, Caravaggio has left us no drawings. Yet it is difficult to understand how such a complex scenario could have been constructed without some prior sketched planning.

Like many great painters, Caravaggio triumphs not only in composition but in the details. He has an extraordinary sensitivity to how movement and aging effect not just facial expressions, but the entirety of the body.

Wrinkles are a common feature; on the shepherds staring intently at the baby Jesus; on the mother of Salome; curling around the eyebrows of the Maltese Knight; lacing the face of Jerome, as he struggles to work in the face of his own mortality. Caravaggio had a sure way of transmitting the passing of time.

But it is the fingers of Caravaggio’s protagonists that struck me most. (Indeed looking at the fingers always seems to be a good way to distinguish the Caravaggios from Caravaggios’ copyists – digits on the latter appear unarticulated and pudgy.) They seem uncannily significant, expressing the movements or emotions of their owners in revealing fashion. Thus we have, almost directly in the middle of the painting, the clenched fist of the swordsman who decapitated John, his fingers wrapped tightly around the Baptist’s hair, emphasising the heavy, dead nature of John’s head. In the same painting, the hands of Salome’s mother are folded together in contemplation, managing to express satisfaction at a job completed, but also hinting at a guilty wring of the hands. The long finger of the angel in the Annunciation does more than point, but implies the calling that defines the narrative. It juts out from the hand, as if preparing to swoop and complete the spiritual union between Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary by the merest touch of a fingertip. In Caravaggio’s world, the whole body is animated, not just the soul.

And finally back to the Raising of Lazarus, where the most potent finger resides. With a single movement, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, his finger tracing a line toward Lazarus’ soul. With this gesture orchestrating the painting, so familiar from the context of the Sistine Chapel, Caravaggio not only articulates his own vision of Jesus, but also shows himself a worthy heir to Michelangelo.

(A note on the catalogue. The printing good and the photographs of a good quality. The translation is middling, although it appears as if it is still stuck with Italian syntax. But the layout is shocking, with no line breaks between paragraphs. And then the content; how many readers are really interested the dusty questions about provenance that seemingly feature in every catalogue entry? I’m astonished how art historians miss the point, almost deliberately, in catalogue entries.)

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2 Comments

Filed under Baroque, Caravaggio, National Gallery

2 responses to “Caravaggio: The Late Years, National Gallery

  1. It must’ve been a midlife crisis :).

  2. Lindsey

    Yes, but do you find the category ‘Counter Reformation Art’ to be at all valid here???

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