By Cayla Jackson
Michelangelo Meresi da Caravaggio born in 1571, was a talented Italian artist who was sensitive, rebellious and intellectually ambitious, using his volatile character to create intense, unsettling and haunting artworks for all to see. Caravaggio painted the past as if it was the present, creating a connection with his world and the future, offering all to see not only with their eyes but their hearts.
I found myself drawn to the intense artworks created by this haunted, violent soul, the extreme contrasts of light and dark used in expressing details and facial expression, and wondering if he ever had moments of hope and life without fear. Was there a deeper meaning that might be hidden within his art? It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and if so, what was Caravaggio saying?
Caravaggio was a survivor, outsider and rebel against convention. With his father and other family members being killed during the outbreak of the plaque by the time Caravaggio was six, my heart breaks with sorrow and I wonder if it was this deep sense of loss and aloneness that set Caravaggio on his path of self destruction. With the isolation and social distancing of the Covid-19 virus of our modern times I can only empathize what the effect on his mental health was.
In 1584 at the age of twelve, Caravaggio apprenticed with Simone Peterzano, a talented fresco painter. This was different than other artists who only trained with members of the court or personal members of their family. Here is one way that Caravaggio stood out breaking free from society’s rules of the Early Modern Art Era. Not yet twenty Caravaggio found himself in deep trouble, murdering a young police officer, starting a life of violent assault and becoming a fugitive from Justice. Breaking free from the restraints of society Caravaggio began his life of impulsive acts, standing alone as a violent man in violent times which provided a sense of bloody drama seen within many of his paintings.
The one aspect of Caravaggio’s artwork that shouted out to me was his use of vibrant and vivid colors in telling of his story. The intensity grabbed at my emotions along with the sense of realism and connection to his life. In the “Beheading of John the Baptist” (1609) an oil on canvas, the story of King Harold, who upon seeing his wife’s daughter Salome dancing, is willing to give her anything she wishes. Salome asks for John the Baptist’s head. Of course, King Harold drunk, agrees and so it was done. Though this story is violent I feel it depicts how many parents feel that never saying no is an acceptable way to express love. Unfortunately, like John the Baptist it will never end well. Caravaggio’s painting may have expressed how Caravaggio was feeling, with inferences about his homosexual tendencies and criminal lifestyle it is the only painting where he signed his name, being found in the pool of blood that has flowed from John the Baptist’s head. As a viewer I am left with a feeling of horror and sadness.
In “Supper of Emmaus” (1601) an oil on canvas Caravaggio once again plays to one’s emotions but this time it is shock, wonder and astonishment that feels my body with realism and joy. This painting did not look like an oil painting but rather a photograph, a moment in time with people I might have known. As in many of Caravaggio’s paintings poverty and the common humanity of Christ is brought to light and the intensity of how miracles contain unimaginable power is expressed with the intense light within the painting. It is a picture of hope. Caravaggio never lost touch of everyday life and often characterised ordinary people within his works of art. It offers us a glimpse of human relationships, our doubts and beliefs with each other. It also created a sense of desire within me. With the invention of the smart phone, face book and other social media apps I wonder if we have lost a sense of this human relationship with each other, and perhaps “Supper of Emmaus” is one painting that will remind us of the joyful possibility.
Caravaggio used his down to earth, simplistic, and realistic sense of characterizing his subjects while ignoring the proper regard laid down by the Church. Caravaggio may have been expressing his disrespect and alternative personality traits.
Caravaggio was an amazing artist whose style and techniques have become a foundation for artist of the present day and future. A master of photographic techniques, a rebel without a cause, and a survivor of true heartache, Caravaggio left a part of himself within his paintings. It should not be his sins that judge him as an artist but his achievements. We all make mistakes though some mistakes are bigger than others, it is the celebration of our accomplishments that make each of us the artist of our own lives and human in our hearts.