Not many artists can pack such intense emotion into a few feet of canvas as Caravaggio, the bad boy of Roman art. He was a drinker, a Casanova (some say bi-sexual), a brawler, and after a fight over a tennis match that went bad, a murderer. Yet this man of violent passions and actions understood the sorrows and sad beauty of life like few others and poured it all into his canvases. He shocked his contemporaries with his refusal to depict humans, saints or even gods as sublime or heroic; in Caravaggio’s hands historic or biblical events were depicted with a startlingly raw reality, as if they were unfolding before the spectator’s eyes. Rejecting centuries of artistic convention, Caravaggio instead pictured the world he knew, taking his models from the streets. His subjects were never idealised or necessarily beautiful and often looked as if they could use a bath.
This was all a bit too much for many of Caravaggio’s contemporaries. This painting of the death of the Virgin – a theme traditionally portrayed as a dignified heavenly ascent – was commissioned by a Vatican lawyer for his family chapel in Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. However the finished work was rejected by the monks of the church; this, the monks said, was no way to depict the Virgin.
Caravaggio’s Virgin is not the traditional blonde beauty rising up to heaven but an ordinary woman on her deathbed. She lies lifeless, her heading lolling to one side, her lips apart, her feet bloated and splayed. With unflinching realism, the artist reminds the viewer that there is nothing dignified in death. The Virgin’s only indication of divinity is a pale halo above her dishevelled hair. Yet, the scene is arranged to draw all eyes to her. Her red dress is echoed in the dramatic draping overhead. The play of light and shadow accentuate her limp form; it is not a dazzling celestial light but more a pale morning or winter light that fills the room, touching the bald heads of the mourning apostles but focusing on the Virgin. The weak light expresses the emotional and physical exhaustion of all present and at the same time the profound hope offered by this mundane scene.
With their faces lost in shadows or behind expressive hand gestures or grief-stricken grimaces, there is little indication as to the identity of the apostles; the elderly man on the left could be St Peter, kneeling beside him St John, the woman doubled over in grief is probably the Magdalene. This intense physicality combined with Caravaggio’s unorthodox approach to sacred subjects placed the artist at odds with contemporary expectations about religious art: should art focus on the theological importance of the event and depict the tale using traditional idealised formats? Or, should it strive for reality, as Caravaggio does, bringing the divine a human quality?
For Caravaggio, stark naturalism was not an end in itself but a means of conveying a deep spirituality. Here he depicts the apostles as poor men with unkempt beards and dirty feet and they are the more extraordinary for it. Their trials and suffering are brought more poignantly to life by Caravaggio’s boldly modern portrayal. Suppressing all anecdotal detail, he invests this subdued scene with extraordinary monumentality simply through the figures’ presence and the intensity of their emotions. Caravaggio depicts a harsh world with knowing sympathy and suggests salvation is to be found, not in an idealised divinity, but in the real imperfect world.
Caravaggio was also revolutionary in terms of technique. He liked to push figures up again the picture plane and used light to create drama with a technique called tenebrism, a heightened form of chiaroscuro, in which figures are brightly illuminated against intense darkness. Caravaggio’s light, accompanied by exact, dynamic drawing gives his art a crisp clarity and physical presence that can startle with its realism. The result was an artistic revolution, known as Caravaggism, that spread across Europe rejecting the affectation of Mannerism in favour of Caravaggio’s frank, robust, energetic style.
c1603–4 Annibale Carracci: The Lamentation, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
1604 El Greco: The Resurrection, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado