Caravaggio’s Sacramental Realism | Thomas S. Hibbs | Catholic World Report
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.
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