Caravaggio
St. John the Baptist, c.1604-5
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Palazzo Corsini, Rome
Oil on canvas 94 x 131cm
“M did another and more sanguine John not long after this lunar hallucinated boy. There was even less here to identify the model with its ostensible subject. The new version was in the horizontal format M liked and the tougher looking model was painted in a similar stance but seated much lower, the image cut off at the knees, and he might have been sitting naked on the edge of a bed – the wilderness setting was almost totally obscured and the red cloak looked like a bed cover. The lower centre of gravity had something to do with a regained sense of stability – the previous John looked as though he were slipping off a high stool. The brilliant coldness of the earlier light on flesh was gone now, and so was the sense of fragility – the new model had a labourer’s robustness, and his suntanned face and neck, and his tanned forearms identified him as an outdoor boy. The big work-roughened hands – Roman police were just then telling legit labourers in the city from illegal beggars by checking their hands – the food bowl, the everyday white undergarment instead of the animal skin, had come with him from the real workaday world. The densely textured creaminess in the simplified painting of the torso, the economically splendid folds of the dark red drape and the barely suggested background marked a new, confident urgency in M’s art. The warmly rendered body and John’s lowered gaze – eyes unseen and features almost hidden by darkness and the mop of hair, except for the very carnal mouth – gave some sense now of anonymous sex rewarded, release from anxiety, the comfort of strangers, carnal peace. Darkness and light were less ferociously opposed.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

St. John the Baptist, c.1604-5

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Palazzo Corsini, Rome

Oil on canvas 94 x 131cm

“M did another and more sanguine John not long after this lunar hallucinated boy. There was even less here to identify the model with its ostensible subject. The new version was in the horizontal format M liked and the tougher looking model was painted in a similar stance but seated much lower, the image cut off at the knees, and he might have been sitting naked on the edge of a bed – the wilderness setting was almost totally obscured and the red cloak looked like a bed cover. The lower centre of gravity had something to do with a regained sense of stability – the previous John looked as though he were slipping off a high stool. The brilliant coldness of the earlier light on flesh was gone now, and so was the sense of fragility – the new model had a labourer’s robustness, and his suntanned face and neck, and his tanned forearms identified him as an outdoor boy. The big work-roughened hands – Roman police were just then telling legit labourers in the city from illegal beggars by checking their hands – the food bowl, the everyday white undergarment instead of the animal skin, had come with him from the real workaday world. The densely textured creaminess in the simplified painting of the torso, the economically splendid folds of the dark red drape and the barely suggested background marked a new, confident urgency in M’s art. The warmly rendered body and John’s lowered gaze – eyes unseen and features almost hidden by darkness and the mop of hair, except for the very carnal mouth – gave some sense now of anonymous sex rewarded, release from anxiety, the comfort of strangers, carnal peace. Darkness and light were less ferociously opposed.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

St. John the Baptist, c.1604-5
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
Oil on canvas 173 x 133cm
“Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist was commissioned by the influential Roman banker Ottavio Costa, one of the painter’s foremost patrons. Costa was originally from Liguria and the altarpiece was destined for the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista at Conscente near Genoa. However, when Costa saw the picture he was so impressed that he kept the original and had a copy placed in the oratory (now Museo Diocesano, Albenga). St John’s childhood in the desert was one of the stories that post-Tridentine theologians, such as Filippo Neri, were particularly eager to revive in the wake of Protestant attacks. Usually the saint was depicted dressed in animal skins, crying out from the wilderness with a message of hope and salvation. He was a light shining in the darkness and a model of penitence and poverty. The psychological tension of Caravaggio’s deeply anguished adolescent, however, is singular. Set in an eerie moonlit landscape, his pale flesh and magnificent crimson robe reverberate against a background of luxuriantly lush oak leaves. The mullein plants at his feet were gathered on his feast day to ward off evil. The Baptist’s only other attribute is a reed cross. With his lips firmly shut, he does not cry out but rather broods in complete solitude. A 1624 guidebook described the altarpiece in the oratory as an image of St John in the desert mourning human miseries that taught penitence not only to the brothers but also to pilgrims. The oratory itself was located halfway up a mountain and Caravaggio’s melancholy St John was intended to be a spiritual guide for the weary pilgrims as they climbed to the summit in penance. The powerful monumentality of the figure is derived from Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel and antique sculpture such as the Torso Belvedere and the Dying Niobids. But as was typical of his working procedure, Caravaggio incised the general outlines of the composition directly into the dark ground from a live model posed in his studio. Some of these lines are still visible to the naked eye in the raking light.”(The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts, 2001)
“As the difficult year of 1604 went on, after he had done Lena as the Madonna, maybe around the time of the April artichoke violence at Moro’s, M went back in mind to his fairly untroubled first assay at John with the green leaves and sunlit wall – and took it up again in a painting he did for Ottavio Costa. He reworked it with another model seen in a similar way in a similar pose, or a mirror image of it. The new boy was older, more deeply frowning, the foliage was now dead and brown, the background dark, the sheep was gone. The delicacy of the first painting, where the red cloak spread around him enhanced the warm tan of the boy’s skin, was screwed up in the new version into a harsh light that broke up the image of the boy’s body into areas of livid white skin and irregular patches of deep shadow. The cloak was so vast and heavy it seemed to be swallowing the boy’s body, and its red now showed up his pallor. Under his tousled hair, the deep shadows of his eye sockets, and the shadow under his cheekbones, nose and mouth, all turned the boy’s sensitive white face into something like a death’s head. The younger and earlier model’s softly slumped body and almost childish splayed legs were now tensed and hollowed, bent with an early adult exhaustion, a thin shoulder, a forearm, a knee catching the full intensity of the light, ribs, and joints delineated and the rest of the body eaten up by darkness. Age seemed determinant in M#s treatment of his John models – he moved from the tender handling of the first and youngest through frankly expressed desire of Cecco’s active body to a kind of identification now with the more nearly adult figure of his deeply introspective third. The complicated breaking up of the body’s image into extremes of light and shadow implied a fragmented, disturbed, unrested mind, and it was a disturbing and disorientating figure to look at. The raking light from overhead was no longer shaping the figure out of darkness. It was blasting the body to brilliant pieces.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

St. John the Baptist, c.1604-5

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Oil on canvas 173 x 133cm

“Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist was commissioned by the influential Roman banker Ottavio Costa, one of the painter’s foremost patrons. Costa was originally from Liguria and the altarpiece was destined for the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista at Conscente near Genoa. However, when Costa saw the picture he was so impressed that he kept the original and had a copy placed in the oratory (now Museo Diocesano, Albenga). St John’s childhood in the desert was one of the stories that post-Tridentine theologians, such as Filippo Neri, were particularly eager to revive in the wake of Protestant attacks. Usually the saint was depicted dressed in animal skins, crying out from the wilderness with a message of hope and salvation. He was a light shining in the darkness and a model of penitence and poverty. The psychological tension of Caravaggio’s deeply anguished adolescent, however, is singular. Set in an eerie moonlit landscape, his pale flesh and magnificent crimson robe reverberate against a background of luxuriantly lush oak leaves. The mullein plants at his feet were gathered on his feast day to ward off evil. The Baptist’s only other attribute is a reed cross. With his lips firmly shut, he does not cry out but rather broods in complete solitude. A 1624 guidebook described the altarpiece in the oratory as an image of St John in the desert mourning human miseries that taught penitence not only to the brothers but also to pilgrims. The oratory itself was located halfway up a mountain and Caravaggio’s melancholy St John was intended to be a spiritual guide for the weary pilgrims as they climbed to the summit in penance. The powerful monumentality of the figure is derived from Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel and antique sculpture such as the Torso Belvedere and the Dying Niobids. But as was typical of his working procedure, Caravaggio incised the general outlines of the composition directly into the dark ground from a live model posed in his studio. Some of these lines are still visible to the naked eye in the raking light.”(The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts, 2001)

“As the difficult year of 1604 went on, after he had done Lena as the Madonna, maybe around the time of the April artichoke violence at Moro’s, M went back in mind to his fairly untroubled first assay at John with the green leaves and sunlit wall – and took it up again in a painting he did for Ottavio Costa. He reworked it with another model seen in a similar way in a similar pose, or a mirror image of it. The new boy was older, more deeply frowning, the foliage was now dead and brown, the background dark, the sheep was gone. The delicacy of the first painting, where the red cloak spread around him enhanced the warm tan of the boy’s skin, was screwed up in the new version into a harsh light that broke up the image of the boy’s body into areas of livid white skin and irregular patches of deep shadow. The cloak was so vast and heavy it seemed to be swallowing the boy’s body, and its red now showed up his pallor. Under his tousled hair, the deep shadows of his eye sockets, and the shadow under his cheekbones, nose and mouth, all turned the boy’s sensitive white face into something like a death’s head. The younger and earlier model’s softly slumped body and almost childish splayed legs were now tensed and hollowed, bent with an early adult exhaustion, a thin shoulder, a forearm, a knee catching the full intensity of the light, ribs, and joints delineated and the rest of the body eaten up by darkness. Age seemed determinant in M#s treatment of his John models – he moved from the tender handling of the first and youngest through frankly expressed desire of Cecco’s active body to a kind of identification now with the more nearly adult figure of his deeply introspective third. The complicated breaking up of the body’s image into extremes of light and shadow implied a fragmented, disturbed, unrested mind, and it was a disturbing and disorientating figure to look at. The raking light from overhead was no longer shaping the figure out of darkness. It was blasting the body to brilliant pieces.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Pilgrims’ Madonna, 1604
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Rome
Oil on canvas 260 x 150cm
“He did her as a sexy young housewife coming to the front door of what looked like a very ordinary Roman home – a handsome doorway, the frame a bit chipped and a patch of stucco missing from the wall, exposing the bricks beneath – still babying the overgrown naked boy child in her arms and gazing unseeingly – unlike the child, whose eyes were on the human – with a kind of stoical modesty at a patch of ground in front of the shabby couple kneeling devotedly below the doorstep. The shabby couple – they must have just knocked – were a bearded barefoot man in his thirties with patched britches and a considerably older and worn looking woman, old enough to be the man’s mother, who had already lost her teeth and had her hair scarfed against roadside dust. They both had walking staves, resting on their shoulders for the moment as they touched their fingertips in devotion, and the staves showed who the couple were. They were the pilgrims.
The pilgrims’ Madonna was now a young Roman housewife, stunningly beautiful in early motherhood, her legs languidly crossed as she leant against the doorway in a fulfilled maternal daze, getting the rather shabby holy house to take some of the weight of the big child in her arms. She looked as if she had come out for a gossip, or to catch the late sun and a bit of alley life. She was barefoot, but dressed in silk and velvet, a loose-sleeved pomegranate top with a hint of décolletage and a grey silk shirt pulled tight over her thigh by her cross-legged stance. It was the first time M had used this gorgeous Venetian red since the musical boys in his first work for Del Monte and he never would again. It seemed to mark an erotic surge, a particular voluptuousness of perception. Her clothes, in the Roman alley, and her athletic tiptoe levitating stance that faintly recalled the story of the flying house, marked her subtly as different, along with her looks. Her superb Greek profile – dark thick hair, dark jutting brow, heavy-lidded eyes, big straight nose and small mouth – was caught against the darkness in M’s oblique afternoon light. This was a carnal and sensual Madonna. She was an icon remade.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Pilgrims’ Madonna, 1604

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Rome

Oil on canvas 260 x 150cm

“He did her as a sexy young housewife coming to the front door of what looked like a very ordinary Roman home – a handsome doorway, the frame a bit chipped and a patch of stucco missing from the wall, exposing the bricks beneath – still babying the overgrown naked boy child in her arms and gazing unseeingly – unlike the child, whose eyes were on the human – with a kind of stoical modesty at a patch of ground in front of the shabby couple kneeling devotedly below the doorstep. The shabby couple – they must have just knocked – were a bearded barefoot man in his thirties with patched britches and a considerably older and worn looking woman, old enough to be the man’s mother, who had already lost her teeth and had her hair scarfed against roadside dust. They both had walking staves, resting on their shoulders for the moment as they touched their fingertips in devotion, and the staves showed who the couple were. They were the pilgrims.

The pilgrims’ Madonna was now a young Roman housewife, stunningly beautiful in early motherhood, her legs languidly crossed as she leant against the doorway in a fulfilled maternal daze, getting the rather shabby holy house to take some of the weight of the big child in her arms. She looked as if she had come out for a gossip, or to catch the late sun and a bit of alley life. She was barefoot, but dressed in silk and velvet, a loose-sleeved pomegranate top with a hint of décolletage and a grey silk shirt pulled tight over her thigh by her cross-legged stance. It was the first time M had used this gorgeous Venetian red since the musical boys in his first work for Del Monte and he never would again. It seemed to mark an erotic surge, a particular voluptuousness of perception. Her clothes, in the Roman alley, and her athletic tiptoe levitating stance that faintly recalled the story of the flying house, marked her subtly as different, along with her looks. Her superb Greek profile – dark thick hair, dark jutting brow, heavy-lidded eyes, big straight nose and small mouth – was caught against the darkness in M’s oblique afternoon light. This was a carnal and sensual Madonna. She was an icon remade.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Isaac & Abraham II, 1603
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Uffizi, Florence
Oil on canvas 104 x 135cm
“As in so many other works, Caravaggio has focused on the most psychologically telling moment, and has frozen it in time. The angel has grasped Abraham’s wrist at the instant of the knife’s descent towards Isaac’s throat, and neither father not son is yet aware that the horror is averted. This is particularly true of Isaac, in whose contorted face Caravaggio’s early experiments with the expression of the passions, as in the Boy bitten by a lizard, have now borne full fruit. The dominant thrust of the long diagonal that leads down the angel’s arm is towards the head of the boy, so that the picture has two equal points of focus, the ocular encounter of Abraham with the angel, and the head of Isaac juxtaposed with the ram that is there to replace him.
The almost painful naturalism with which Caravaggio describes Isaac’s terror is all the more shocking within this static, ordered composition based on simple triangles, the lines of which are formed by the protagonists’ arms and shoulders. As so often with Caravaggio, the physical presence of the model – in this case the same boy who played Cupid in the Omnia vincit Amor – remains almost tangible. As Abraham presses Isaac’s head against the stone altar-block, his mouth opens to emit a scream. Caravaggio’s ability here, as in the screaming head of Holofernes in his Judith and Holofernes, to suggest the audible aspect of the story is remarkable, and the evocation of the sense of sound in painting may well have been a particular interest and goal for Caravaggio in his Roman years. Here, it adds to the immediacy of a story that is just reaching its climax. Only the heaven-sent ram, introduced at the right as an almost parodic counterpart to the heaven-sent angel, hints at the resolution and the more conventional sacrifice to come.” (Rembrandt/Caravaggio, ed. Duncan Bull, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2006)
 
“The new version took the old man last seen looking on in Doubting Thomas and before that as the second Matthew writing with the angel, and before that as Peter, looking less disturbed than his forerunner at the orders he was being asked to carry out, sceptical at the last minute stay of execution. He still had his son under his thumb, which was pressing cruelly into the boy’s neck as the hand held his neck to the stone. Isaac was Cecco – stripped naked, hands tied out of sight behind his back, face pressed down sideways and bum arching upward in a struggle, white and distorted, yelling his head off. It looked like a sexual assault in the grey morning light – peasant violence on a child labourer somewhere on the outskirts of town. The upward jutting knife-blade stood for rape and murder. Beside the boy’s writhing and his terrified yell of resistance, both the serenely intervening angel and the ram, looking in sideways from opposite edges of the canvas, were a lot more formulaic than M’s earlier rams and angels. They carried no freight of meaning here. The violence was on its own – so nakedly that M, pressed by circumstances or Barberini or a late loss of nerve of his own after the trial, muted and muffled its force with some last minute changes. ” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Isaac & Abraham II, 1603

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Uffizi, Florence

Oil on canvas 104 x 135cm

“As in so many other works, Caravaggio has focused on the most psychologically telling moment, and has frozen it in time. The angel has grasped Abraham’s wrist at the instant of the knife’s descent towards Isaac’s throat, and neither father not son is yet aware that the horror is averted. This is particularly true of Isaac, in whose contorted face Caravaggio’s early experiments with the expression of the passions, as in the Boy bitten by a lizard, have now borne full fruit. The dominant thrust of the long diagonal that leads down the angel’s arm is towards the head of the boy, so that the picture has two equal points of focus, the ocular encounter of Abraham with the angel, and the head of Isaac juxtaposed with the ram that is there to replace him.

The almost painful naturalism with which Caravaggio describes Isaac’s terror is all the more shocking within this static, ordered composition based on simple triangles, the lines of which are formed by the protagonists’ arms and shoulders. As so often with Caravaggio, the physical presence of the model – in this case the same boy who played Cupid in the Omnia vincit Amor – remains almost tangible. As Abraham presses Isaac’s head against the stone altar-block, his mouth opens to emit a scream. Caravaggio’s ability here, as in the screaming head of Holofernes in his Judith and Holofernes, to suggest the audible aspect of the story is remarkable, and the evocation of the sense of sound in painting may well have been a particular interest and goal for Caravaggio in his Roman years. Here, it adds to the immediacy of a story that is just reaching its climax. Only the heaven-sent ram, introduced at the right as an almost parodic counterpart to the heaven-sent angel, hints at the resolution and the more conventional sacrifice to come.” (Rembrandt/Caravaggio, ed. Duncan Bull, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2006)

 

“The new version took the old man last seen looking on in Doubting Thomas and before that as the second Matthew writing with the angel, and before that as Peter, looking less disturbed than his forerunner at the orders he was being asked to carry out, sceptical at the last minute stay of execution. He still had his son under his thumb, which was pressing cruelly into the boy’s neck as the hand held his neck to the stone. Isaac was Cecco – stripped naked, hands tied out of sight behind his back, face pressed down sideways and bum arching upward in a struggle, white and distorted, yelling his head off. It looked like a sexual assault in the grey morning light – peasant violence on a child labourer somewhere on the outskirts of town. The upward jutting knife-blade stood for rape and murder. Beside the boy’s writhing and his terrified yell of resistance, both the serenely intervening angel and the ram, looking in sideways from opposite edges of the canvas, were a lot more formulaic than M’s earlier rams and angels. They carried no freight of meaning here. The violence was on its own – so nakedly that M, pressed by circumstances or Barberini or a late loss of nerve of his own after the trial, muted and muffled its force with some last minute changes. ” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

The Entombment, 1603
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Vatican museums, Rome
Oil on canvas 300 x 203cm
“The form of Caravaggio’s Entombment is strictly linked to the location for which it was originally destined and thus to its liturgical and devotional use. The chapel in the Chiesa Nuova in which it hung until 1797 was dedicated to the Pietà. The chapel’s first patron, Pietro Vittrice, was particularly devoted to the Shroud of Turin, which is represented on the entrance arch. In Caravaggio’s painting, too, Christ’s winding sheet is a prominent feature. Giovan Pietro Bellori described Caravaggio’s altarpiece as surprisingly static. The figures merely hold up Christ’s dead body, unmistakably presenting it to the viewer, at whom Nicodemus looks directly. despite their dramatic gestures, the women at the rear also seem strangely inactive. Nevertheless the composition is impressive in its unity. In Caravaggio’s painting the Madonna plays a central role: her arms flung wide, she takes leave of her dead son. This is not an iconographical novelty. The best known example is Pontormo’s Deposition (1527) in Santa Felicita in Florence in which the Virgin with her dramatic gesture bids farewell to her dead son. Caravaggio’s image is thus first and foremost a somewhat surprising variation on the Pietà. The Madonna’s right hand hovers above Christ’s head in a gesture of valediction. This is a common pictorial formula, which can also be seen in Annibale Carracci’s Pietà (Museé du Louvre, Paris). In Caravaggio’s Entombment it is their very inactivity that makes the women’s mourning of the dead saviour so monumental. The striking diagonal placement of the tomb has been interpreted as a symbolic reference to Christ as the cornerstone of the Church. Just as Good Friday commemorates the Entombment, the liturgy for Easter Saturday refers to Christ as the cornerstone at the very beginning of the service. Caravaggio’s painting was made for a chapel that, in a certain sense, demonstrates that Christ is the cornerstone of the universe. It thus played an important role in the overall programme of the Chiesa Nuova, which was fundamentally Marian.” (The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts 2001)
 “Christ’s burial was a deeply moving picture for all the wrong reasons. Not that any of its admirers seemed to notice, then or ever after. It briskly eliminated mourning, swooning or keening and got down to the practical question of man-handling a naked corpse and lowering it into the ground. The physical awkwardness was clear when the process was seen from below. Christ did for once look like a real corpse and a dead weight, a well-made man killed in his prime, his lips already turning blue. It was a strictly private burial, two close male associates, John and Nicodemus, dealing with the body and three women formerly close to the deceased pressing up close behind. The dead man’s mother showed considerable self-control in her set face, while one of the younger women, a very pretty girl whose fancy hairdo was coming undone in wisps, was bent forward crying quietly to herself. Only the third woman, a young relative at the back, made a slight show of public emotion with her upraised hands. 
The moment of stasis in the action had come when this group had arrived at the edge of the stone slab and finished moving forward. The two men were about to lower the body. Everyone was bunched up close into a single sculptural group. A curving declension of bowed heads led the eye ineluctably to the horizontal reality of the dead body. They were all on top of each other, the corpse’s legs encircled in Nicodemus’ arms, John taking the weight of the torso with his fingers in the wound, the women backing up behind – the five living figures were quite distinct, none looking at another, locked in their own thoughts but locked together by the intimacy of the task in hand, a collective unity packed into the canvas. They were felt as a looming solid presence. M’s fascination with three-dimensionality in painting – not in Leonardo’s old renaissance sense of perspective and a depth that receded from the plane of the picture’s surface, but as an invasive bodying forth out of that surface – went back to his experiments with the curved surface in the Medusa shield, the Basket of fruit on its ledge, sticking out from the wall the painting was hanging on. Now it was solid figures looming out of the dark. He was always having quiet slapstick fun with this illusion of physical imminence, with the fruit basket about to topple of the table in front of Christ in Emmaus, Matthew’s stool about to crash out on to the altar and send the saint flying, or turning the space of a chapel where the viewer stood into a paleochristian plunge pool. This was a painter who enjoyed training his black poodle Crow to walk on its hind legs.
Now he was realising this effect of physical imminence as an answer to the old question of action in narrative painting. If feeling could be rendered in its moment of stillness as inwardness, action could be done as the stillness in which movement impended into your space – it was the acrobat’s trapeze at its furthest point from you, about to swing toward you and be grabbed. The friends burying Christ were neither facing nor in profile to a person looking at M’s painting. As the corner of the stone slab they stood on made clear, jutting massively out of the bottom at the viewer, their impending movement was diagonal to the picture plane. Nicodemus caught the viewer’s eye with a sharp and wary sideways glance out of the front of the picture. This pulled you into a peculiar and almost furtive intimacy with the event – like an actor glancing at an observer in the wings – as the visual aggression of his elbow, jutting like the slab sharply into the observing eye, made the viewer even more of an intruder into this private and sorrowful task.
Most powerfully, though, it made the whole group look as if it were going to follow Nicodemus’s gaze and swivel round toward the viewer and dump the body – since anyone in the chapel was looking up at these figures from somewhere down in the tomb, which was more of M’s subdued visual fun – if not in your lap at least on the altar below the painting. < had set up a powerfully monumental group in his studio – a group whose sculptural classicism the critics all admired in the finished painting, as they were intended to – and then moved his easel over to paint from the corner. It was a move that his Nicodemus model, lately seen as Thomas probing Christ’s wound, clearly found disconcerting. He was unaware that the oblique glances he kept shooting over at the painter from his long bony face, and his pointy elbow and the curve of his hunched back and his big feet with the raised veins over the ankle bones, sturdily planted at eye level, would be at the heart of a great pathos.
Christ’s burial was a triumph of fine-tuning. M now knew how to seize the telling instant of utter stillness that always occurred in any collective event, between one movement and another, like the stillness of a pendulum at the furthest point of its arc. Busy tumult vanished from his work.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

The Entombment, 1603

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Vatican museums, Rome

Oil on canvas 300 x 203cm

“The form of Caravaggio’s Entombment is strictly linked to the location for which it was originally destined and thus to its liturgical and devotional use. The chapel in the Chiesa Nuova in which it hung until 1797 was dedicated to the Pietà. The chapel’s first patron, Pietro Vittrice, was particularly devoted to the Shroud of Turin, which is represented on the entrance arch. In Caravaggio’s painting, too, Christ’s winding sheet is a prominent feature. Giovan Pietro Bellori described Caravaggio’s altarpiece as surprisingly static. The figures merely hold up Christ’s dead body, unmistakably presenting it to the viewer, at whom Nicodemus looks directly. despite their dramatic gestures, the women at the rear also seem strangely inactive. Nevertheless the composition is impressive in its unity. In Caravaggio’s painting the Madonna plays a central role: her arms flung wide, she takes leave of her dead son. This is not an iconographical novelty. The best known example is Pontormo’s Deposition (1527) in Santa Felicita in Florence in which the Virgin with her dramatic gesture bids farewell to her dead son. Caravaggio’s image is thus first and foremost a somewhat surprising variation on the Pietà. The Madonna’s right hand hovers above Christ’s head in a gesture of valediction. This is a common pictorial formula, which can also be seen in Annibale Carracci’s Pietà (Museé du Louvre, Paris). In Caravaggio’s Entombment it is their very inactivity that makes the women’s mourning of the dead saviour so monumental. The striking diagonal placement of the tomb has been interpreted as a symbolic reference to Christ as the cornerstone of the Church. Just as Good Friday commemorates the Entombment, the liturgy for Easter Saturday refers to Christ as the cornerstone at the very beginning of the service. Caravaggio’s painting was made for a chapel that, in a certain sense, demonstrates that Christ is the cornerstone of the universe. It thus played an important role in the overall programme of the Chiesa Nuova, which was fundamentally Marian.” (The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts 2001)

 “Christ’s burial was a deeply moving picture for all the wrong reasons. Not that any of its admirers seemed to notice, then or ever after. It briskly eliminated mourning, swooning or keening and got down to the practical question of man-handling a naked corpse and lowering it into the ground. The physical awkwardness was clear when the process was seen from below. Christ did for once look like a real corpse and a dead weight, a well-made man killed in his prime, his lips already turning blue. It was a strictly private burial, two close male associates, John and Nicodemus, dealing with the body and three women formerly close to the deceased pressing up close behind. The dead man’s mother showed considerable self-control in her set face, while one of the younger women, a very pretty girl whose fancy hairdo was coming undone in wisps, was bent forward crying quietly to herself. Only the third woman, a young relative at the back, made a slight show of public emotion with her upraised hands.

The moment of stasis in the action had come when this group had arrived at the edge of the stone slab and finished moving forward. The two men were about to lower the body. Everyone was bunched up close into a single sculptural group. A curving declension of bowed heads led the eye ineluctably to the horizontal reality of the dead body. They were all on top of each other, the corpse’s legs encircled in Nicodemus’ arms, John taking the weight of the torso with his fingers in the wound, the women backing up behind – the five living figures were quite distinct, none looking at another, locked in their own thoughts but locked together by the intimacy of the task in hand, a collective unity packed into the canvas. They were felt as a looming solid presence. M’s fascination with three-dimensionality in painting – not in Leonardo’s old renaissance sense of perspective and a depth that receded from the plane of the picture’s surface, but as an invasive bodying forth out of that surface – went back to his experiments with the curved surface in the Medusa shield, the Basket of fruit on its ledge, sticking out from the wall the painting was hanging on. Now it was solid figures looming out of the dark. He was always having quiet slapstick fun with this illusion of physical imminence, with the fruit basket about to topple of the table in front of Christ in Emmaus, Matthew’s stool about to crash out on to the altar and send the saint flying, or turning the space of a chapel where the viewer stood into a paleochristian plunge pool. This was a painter who enjoyed training his black poodle Crow to walk on its hind legs.

Now he was realising this effect of physical imminence as an answer to the old question of action in narrative painting. If feeling could be rendered in its moment of stillness as inwardness, action could be done as the stillness in which movement impended into your space – it was the acrobat’s trapeze at its furthest point from you, about to swing toward you and be grabbed. The friends burying Christ were neither facing nor in profile to a person looking at M’s painting. As the corner of the stone slab they stood on made clear, jutting massively out of the bottom at the viewer, their impending movement was diagonal to the picture plane. Nicodemus caught the viewer’s eye with a sharp and wary sideways glance out of the front of the picture. This pulled you into a peculiar and almost furtive intimacy with the event – like an actor glancing at an observer in the wings – as the visual aggression of his elbow, jutting like the slab sharply into the observing eye, made the viewer even more of an intruder into this private and sorrowful task.

Most powerfully, though, it made the whole group look as if it were going to follow Nicodemus’s gaze and swivel round toward the viewer and dump the body – since anyone in the chapel was looking up at these figures from somewhere down in the tomb, which was more of M’s subdued visual fun – if not in your lap at least on the altar below the painting. < had set up a powerfully monumental group in his studio – a group whose sculptural classicism the critics all admired in the finished painting, as they were intended to – and then moved his easel over to paint from the corner. It was a move that his Nicodemus model, lately seen as Thomas probing Christ’s wound, clearly found disconcerting. He was unaware that the oblique glances he kept shooting over at the painter from his long bony face, and his pointy elbow and the curve of his hunched back and his big feet with the raised veins over the ankle bones, sturdily planted at eye level, would be at the heart of a great pathos.

Christ’s burial was a triumph of fine-tuning. M now knew how to seize the telling instant of utter stillness that always occurred in any collective event, between one movement and another, like the stillness of a pendulum at the furthest point of its arc. Busy tumult vanished from his work.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Christ taken, 1602
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5cm
“Caravaggio’s nocturnal vision includes two different light sources, an internal one from the lantern and an external one from the unseen moon. His first nocturne, The Stigmatisation of St. Francis, has a small camp-fire in the background and some illuminated clouds, but neither qualifies as a true light source. Thus The Taking of Christ was the single most important picture for the many northern followers of Caravaggio active in Rome. Caravaggio’s most important Italian follower, Bartolomeo Manfredi, also painted a closely related composition with a similar double light source, known only through copies and prints. In Caravaggio’s remarkable picture the figure holding the lantern is a self-portrait. This, of course, was not the first time Caravaggio had included his features, but it was only the second time he had included himself in a religious scene; he appears in The Martyrdom of St Matthew as part of the fleeing crowd. Perhaps, since Caravaggio portrayed himself illuminating the subject with a lantern, he wished the viewer to accept his depiction as an ‘eye-witness account’ and thus underscore both the truth and the realism of the scene. His self-portrait could be intended as an unusual way of affirming his famous comment about the importance of painting directly from the model. However, Caravaggio is known to have used several earlier sources for his composition, including a 1509 print by Albrecht Durer, and possibly a small Taking of Christ with the Malchus Episode by the early French Master of St. Giles. The latter uses a similar compact composition with an internal light source provided by a lantern held high. Giovanni Pietro Bellori later complained about the accuracy of Caravaggio’s interpretations when he pointed out that the fruit in the London Supper at Emmaus was out of season. Since that picture was also painted for Ciriaco Mattei, one can only wonder if the inclusion of a self-portrait in The Taking of Christ was Caravaggio’s response to the kinds of unusual demands that Mattei made upon him about how various themes were to be depicted. The self-portrait in The Taking of Christ may have been Caravaggio’s thinly disguised answer about how he preferred to work.” (The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts 2001)
“Caravaggio painted the Betrayal of Christ in 1602 for the prominent nobleman marchese Ciriaco Mattei, for whom he had executed The Supper at Emmaus approximately a year earlier. The painter was then 31 years old, and was enjoying his first great Roman success. He was living under the protection of Mattei’s brother, the devout Franciscan cardinal Girolamo Mattei, who may well have advised him on theological aspects in both paintings.
In Caravaggio’s composition, which is loosely based on a well-known print by Durer, Judas’ act of betrayal takes place, curiously, to one side, whole the pictorial field is dominated by the armour of the soldier in the foreground, who reaches forward past Judas to seize Christ by the throat. Above this figure, and almost hidden by his helmet, is a lantern held by the man reaching forward from the right, while on the left a young man flees with his cloak streaming behind him in a curve that contains and isolates the heads of Christ and his betrayer.
The moment Caravaggio has chosen to portray – that of Judas pulling Jesus towards him in an embrace, rather than the actual kiss itself – is unusual. of the four gospel accounts St. Mark’s tells us that Jesus went ‘straightaway to him, and saith, Master. master; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him’ (Mark 14:45-46). Caravaggio shows Christ’s lips parted as if in speech, and it may be that he is following St. Matthew’s account, in which Jesus speaks to Judas after the kiss and before being seized by the soldiers (Matthew 26:47-50). Given the implied movement of the embrace, which suggests that the kiss has not yet taken place, it seems more likely that Caravaggio has taken his cue from St. Luke, who does not describe the kiss itself: ‘he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before [the multitude of soldiers], and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the son of man with a kiss?’ (Luke 22:47-48). If that is indeed the case, Caravaggio’s focus is on Christ’s bitter question. In any case, it is clear that he has taken different elements from the different accounts: St. John is the only evangelist to mention the torches and the lantern (John 18:3), while the fleeing figure to the left is mentioned only by St. Mark (14:51-2). This is a distillation of the sources, in which the artist has selected what is necessary for his expressive purposes, whose force and focus are far sharper than the conventional multi-figured compositions of this subject by his predecessors and contemporaries.
Still intently experimenting in this early phase with the expressive potential of light, Caravaggio makes the dark but shining armour and brilliant red breeches of the central soldier epitomise the physical violence that is about to overtake the resigned and agonised Jesus. The lantern behind his helmet can scarcely be the light source that creates the reflections on the inky metal. For Caravaggio’s artistic purposes it is the spectral quality of the undefined illumination – perhaps moonlight – which enters from outside the pictorial space and bathes the faces of Judas and Jesus that is of importance, not the verisimilitude of its origin. In the whirl of gestures, from the outstretched hand of the fleeing disciple, through the clutching grasp of Judas up to the hand holding the lantern, it is Christ’s knotted fingers, accentuated in the void below the soldier’s arm, that are the most prominent and the most carefully lit. The crisply delineated forms of the armour contrast with the softer folds of the passive Christ’s draperies. just as the coarse physiognomy of Judas is juxtaposed with the pallid features of Christ, whose eyes and mouth melt into shadow. The brutal energy of the group of figures at the right serves only to emphasise Jesus’ isolation even as he is embraced.” (Rembrandt/Caravaggio, ed. Duncan Bull, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2006)
“Again he moved in close and exploited to the utmost the panoramic intimacy of a three-quarter length horizontal canvas, filling the space with seven crowded figures cut off at the knee. It was a wonderfully fluent articulation of distinct individuals into the best action picture he ever did. Everybody was sweeping from right to left across the canvas, soldiers, onlookers, a panicking disciple, Judas himself lunging into Christ’s face with lips still puckered from the kiss – everyone except Christ himself, the one slight figure on the left who stemmed the surge. The painting was like a dynamic reworking of the group in Doubting Thomas, only this more complex cluster divided the canvas down the middle, into a right side of jostling armoured soldiery and darkness and a left side of three interlocked faces of Christ and disciples framed in strongly coloured drapery.
What held it together was the reaching figure of the helmeted and armoured soldier at the front, the great black shell of his shoulder catching a brilliant gleam of light in the very centre of the canvas, the iron-cased arm reaching over Judas’ and the heavy-mailed hand joining Judas’ grasping fingers to pull Christ into the centre of the picture. The soldiers were brutal and menacing but never inhuman. The elderly soldier with the straggly moustache and a badly rusted helmet, uselessly tugging at the fleeing disciple’s red cloak, might have been imagined by Cervantes, and his superficial likeness to the old soldier in the first Saul showed how much more deeply inhuman M’s gaze had become in a year and a half, how his human register had widened.
It was among the soldiers that M now placed himself, at the back of the crowd, peering over heads for a glimpse of the action, so that the upper part of his face was white in the light and the rest in shadow. He was no longer puffy and distraught, as he had seen himself in Matthew killed, no longer fleeing the violence, but newly young, eager, deep-eyed, tensed toward the human confusion, and holding a lantern above the faces in the dark. It was how he lit his models in the studio, hoisting a lantern overhead in the darkened room, and a way now of saying that this was how dark deeds at night were lit in real life. The lantern also illuminated M’s own artfulness, since the real light source, the source in the studio, was out of the picture. The real light was coming from elsewhere. Twenty seven years later the young Spanish painter Velazquez spent a year in Rome at the age M was when he did Christ taken, and his own later paintings showed he looked long and hard at M’s work. If Velazquez ever got to see Christ taken, he might have liked its painter’s wink at the irreducible artificiality of the real in art, winked back and stored the idea away for future use.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Christ taken, 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5cm

“Caravaggio’s nocturnal vision includes two different light sources, an internal one from the lantern and an external one from the unseen moon. His first nocturne, The Stigmatisation of St. Francis, has a small camp-fire in the background and some illuminated clouds, but neither qualifies as a true light source. Thus The Taking of Christ was the single most important picture for the many northern followers of Caravaggio active in Rome. Caravaggio’s most important Italian follower, Bartolomeo Manfredi, also painted a closely related composition with a similar double light source, known only through copies and prints. In Caravaggio’s remarkable picture the figure holding the lantern is a self-portrait. This, of course, was not the first time Caravaggio had included his features, but it was only the second time he had included himself in a religious scene; he appears in The Martyrdom of St Matthew as part of the fleeing crowd. Perhaps, since Caravaggio portrayed himself illuminating the subject with a lantern, he wished the viewer to accept his depiction as an ‘eye-witness account’ and thus underscore both the truth and the realism of the scene. His self-portrait could be intended as an unusual way of affirming his famous comment about the importance of painting directly from the model. However, Caravaggio is known to have used several earlier sources for his composition, including a 1509 print by Albrecht Durer, and possibly a small Taking of Christ with the Malchus Episode by the early French Master of St. Giles. The latter uses a similar compact composition with an internal light source provided by a lantern held high. Giovanni Pietro Bellori later complained about the accuracy of Caravaggio’s interpretations when he pointed out that the fruit in the London Supper at Emmaus was out of season. Since that picture was also painted for Ciriaco Mattei, one can only wonder if the inclusion of a self-portrait in The Taking of Christ was Caravaggio’s response to the kinds of unusual demands that Mattei made upon him about how various themes were to be depicted. The self-portrait in The Taking of Christ may have been Caravaggio’s thinly disguised answer about how he preferred to work.” (The Genius of Rome 1592-1623, ed. Beverley Louise Brown, Royal Academy of Arts 2001)

“Caravaggio painted the Betrayal of Christ in 1602 for the prominent nobleman marchese Ciriaco Mattei, for whom he had executed The Supper at Emmaus approximately a year earlier. The painter was then 31 years old, and was enjoying his first great Roman success. He was living under the protection of Mattei’s brother, the devout Franciscan cardinal Girolamo Mattei, who may well have advised him on theological aspects in both paintings.

In Caravaggio’s composition, which is loosely based on a well-known print by Durer, Judas’ act of betrayal takes place, curiously, to one side, whole the pictorial field is dominated by the armour of the soldier in the foreground, who reaches forward past Judas to seize Christ by the throat. Above this figure, and almost hidden by his helmet, is a lantern held by the man reaching forward from the right, while on the left a young man flees with his cloak streaming behind him in a curve that contains and isolates the heads of Christ and his betrayer.

The moment Caravaggio has chosen to portray – that of Judas pulling Jesus towards him in an embrace, rather than the actual kiss itself – is unusual. of the four gospel accounts St. Mark’s tells us that Jesus went ‘straightaway to him, and saith, Master. master; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him’ (Mark 14:45-46). Caravaggio shows Christ’s lips parted as if in speech, and it may be that he is following St. Matthew’s account, in which Jesus speaks to Judas after the kiss and before being seized by the soldiers (Matthew 26:47-50). Given the implied movement of the embrace, which suggests that the kiss has not yet taken place, it seems more likely that Caravaggio has taken his cue from St. Luke, who does not describe the kiss itself: ‘he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before [the multitude of soldiers], and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the son of man with a kiss?’ (Luke 22:47-48). If that is indeed the case, Caravaggio’s focus is on Christ’s bitter question. In any case, it is clear that he has taken different elements from the different accounts: St. John is the only evangelist to mention the torches and the lantern (John 18:3), while the fleeing figure to the left is mentioned only by St. Mark (14:51-2). This is a distillation of the sources, in which the artist has selected what is necessary for his expressive purposes, whose force and focus are far sharper than the conventional multi-figured compositions of this subject by his predecessors and contemporaries.

Still intently experimenting in this early phase with the expressive potential of light, Caravaggio makes the dark but shining armour and brilliant red breeches of the central soldier epitomise the physical violence that is about to overtake the resigned and agonised Jesus. The lantern behind his helmet can scarcely be the light source that creates the reflections on the inky metal. For Caravaggio’s artistic purposes it is the spectral quality of the undefined illumination – perhaps moonlight – which enters from outside the pictorial space and bathes the faces of Judas and Jesus that is of importance, not the verisimilitude of its origin. In the whirl of gestures, from the outstretched hand of the fleeing disciple, through the clutching grasp of Judas up to the hand holding the lantern, it is Christ’s knotted fingers, accentuated in the void below the soldier’s arm, that are the most prominent and the most carefully lit. The crisply delineated forms of the armour contrast with the softer folds of the passive Christ’s draperies. just as the coarse physiognomy of Judas is juxtaposed with the pallid features of Christ, whose eyes and mouth melt into shadow. The brutal energy of the group of figures at the right serves only to emphasise Jesus’ isolation even as he is embraced.” (Rembrandt/Caravaggio, ed. Duncan Bull, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam 2006)

“Again he moved in close and exploited to the utmost the panoramic intimacy of a three-quarter length horizontal canvas, filling the space with seven crowded figures cut off at the knee. It was a wonderfully fluent articulation of distinct individuals into the best action picture he ever did. Everybody was sweeping from right to left across the canvas, soldiers, onlookers, a panicking disciple, Judas himself lunging into Christ’s face with lips still puckered from the kiss – everyone except Christ himself, the one slight figure on the left who stemmed the surge. The painting was like a dynamic reworking of the group in Doubting Thomas, only this more complex cluster divided the canvas down the middle, into a right side of jostling armoured soldiery and darkness and a left side of three interlocked faces of Christ and disciples framed in strongly coloured drapery.

What held it together was the reaching figure of the helmeted and armoured soldier at the front, the great black shell of his shoulder catching a brilliant gleam of light in the very centre of the canvas, the iron-cased arm reaching over Judas’ and the heavy-mailed hand joining Judas’ grasping fingers to pull Christ into the centre of the picture. The soldiers were brutal and menacing but never inhuman. The elderly soldier with the straggly moustache and a badly rusted helmet, uselessly tugging at the fleeing disciple’s red cloak, might have been imagined by Cervantes, and his superficial likeness to the old soldier in the first Saul showed how much more deeply inhuman M’s gaze had become in a year and a half, how his human register had widened.

It was among the soldiers that M now placed himself, at the back of the crowd, peering over heads for a glimpse of the action, so that the upper part of his face was white in the light and the rest in shadow. He was no longer puffy and distraught, as he had seen himself in Matthew killed, no longer fleeing the violence, but newly young, eager, deep-eyed, tensed toward the human confusion, and holding a lantern above the faces in the dark. It was how he lit his models in the studio, hoisting a lantern overhead in the darkened room, and a way now of saying that this was how dark deeds at night were lit in real life. The lantern also illuminated M’s own artfulness, since the real light source, the source in the studio, was out of the picture. The real light was coming from elsewhere. Twenty seven years later the young Spanish painter Velazquez spent a year in Rome at the age M was when he did Christ taken, and his own later paintings showed he looked long and hard at M’s work. If Velazquez ever got to see Christ taken, he might have liked its painter’s wink at the irreducible artificiality of the real in art, winked back and stored the idea away for future use.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Doubting Thomas, 1602
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Sanssouci, Potsdam
Oil on canvas 107 x 146cm
“People still wince when they see Thomas’ finger stretching the skin over Christ’s ribcage and probing the bloodless slit. Thomas was an austere study in browns of four figures, bare of objects and setting, a man showing his operation scar to his workmates. The four figures were locked into a powerful composition of heads, hands and shoulders, the lines of fold in cloth, wrinkles in brows, strands of hair. Thomas and the other apostles were burly, bent, tanned and creased with outdoor work, and the browns were their glowing life. The Christ was young, slim and ringleted, but dead – or formerly dead – and the painting took its power from the subtlety with which it played on his likeness and unlikeness to them, his closeness to them and separateness from them. His face in half-shadow showed the kind of abstracted intentness with which anyone might study an old spear wound between their ribs, raised to another level of regret.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)

Doubting Thomas, 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Sanssouci, Potsdam

Oil on canvas 107 x 146cm

“People still wince when they see Thomas’ finger stretching the skin over Christ’s ribcage and probing the bloodless slit. Thomas was an austere study in browns of four figures, bare of objects and setting, a man showing his operation scar to his workmates. The four figures were locked into a powerful composition of heads, hands and shoulders, the lines of fold in cloth, wrinkles in brows, strands of hair. Thomas and the other apostles were burly, bent, tanned and creased with outdoor work, and the browns were their glowing life. The Christ was young, slim and ringleted, but dead – or formerly dead – and the painting took its power from the subtlety with which it played on his likeness and unlikeness to them, his closeness to them and separateness from them. His face in half-shadow showed the kind of abstracted intentness with which anyone might study an old spear wound between their ribs, raised to another level of regret.” (M, Peter Robb, 1998)