Born in 1571, Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio divided the first 20 years of his life between the great city of Milan and the small Lombard town of Caravaggio from which his historical name derives. In 1592 he traveled to Rome. By 1600, with the completion of two scenes from the life of St. Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel, he was established as one of the leading painters of the city. From that time forward his works were devoted almost exclusively to large-scale religious paintings. His biblical scenes demonstrate a careful reading of the scriptural text interpreted through three powerful convictions: doctrinal truth, poverty, and realistic mysticism.

Doctrinal Truth: Painting for the Counter-Reformation.

As the Catholic Church rallied to respond to the Protestant Reformation, it called upon artists to represent the truth of Catholic doctrine. Churchmen such as Charles Borromeo developed artistic guidelines so that representations of biblical scenes would promote church teaching. Although Caravaggio participated in this doctrinal agenda, he did so according to his own artistic vision. He did not render theological truths as supernatural intrusions into his work, but allowed them to emerge as natural aspects of the biblical drama.

Supper at Emmaus: 1 Corinthians 15.

Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (London, 1601) is drawn from the narrative of Luke 24:13–35. The risen Jesus walks on the road to Emmaus with two disciples who do not recognize him. When they reach the city, the disciples invite him to stay for the night. At supper he blesses and breaks the bread. The disciples then realize that this stranger is the risen Christ, and he vanishes from their sight. Caravaggio has chosen to represent the moment in Luke’s text when the disciples’ “eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). One disciple pushes up from his chair to stand in amazement. The other extends his arms wide in the form of a cross.

All the Gospels contain resurrection narratives. The Gospels do not, however, expound upon the meaning of the Resurrection. Paul provides this explanation in chapter 15 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. From this chapter Catholic theology has developed several doctrinal teachings. Caravaggio references four of them in his Supper at Emmaus. He does so according to a naturalistic presentation of character, gesture, and setting.

1. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our own resurrection (1 Cor 15:22). A basket of fruit juts precariously over the front of the table around which Christ and the two disciples are gathered. Although Christ is clearly the focus of the painting, strong diagonal lines draw our eyes to these exquisitely drawn fruits. They are more than a demonstration of Caravaggio’s craftsmanship and his desire to entice the viewer into the picture. The emphasis on these grapes, figs, and pomegranates indicates that they are central to the meaning of the painting (Warma, 1990, p. 586).

Caravaggio

The Supper at Emmaus (1601). In this painting Caravaggio represents the moment in Luke when the disciples’ “eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31).

National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Images

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In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul calls the risen Christ “the first fruits of those who have died.” Paul uses this agricultural image to connect Jesus’s resurrection to our own. Christ is the first fruits of the harvest, but the harvest will be complete only when just believers are also raised on the last day. Caravaggio’s basket of fruit references the text of 1 Corinthians. Giovanni Bellori, one of Caravaggio’s early biographers, complained that the fruits were “out of season.” Easter is in the spring. Yet Caravaggio painted fruits of the harvest. Bellori’s temporal evaluation is correct, but it misses Caravaggio’s purpose. The basket requires harvest fruits in order to symbolize Paul’s designation of Christ as the first fruits and to make the doctrinal point that Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our own. To make the doctrinal teaching even clearer, Caravaggio forms the shadow from the basket into the shape of a fish—the ancient symbol for Christ.

2. Resurrected existence—both Christ’s and humanity’s—is bodily (1 Cor 15:44). Despite Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light in most of his paintings, he seldom employs shadows. The Supper at Emmaus is an exception. Caravaggio allows the shadow from the innkeeper to fall on the wall behind Christ’s head, creating a kind of halo for Jesus. Another shadow falls between the head of Christ and the disciple with the outstretched arms. Searching back to the source of this shadow, the viewer discovers that it belongs to the risen Christ. His shadow illustrates the doctrinal point that Jesus has been bodily resurrected. Ghosts do not throw shadows.

3. Resurrected bodies—both Christ’s and humanity’s—differ from bodies before the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:53). Caravaggio conveys this doctrinal point by presenting Christ without a beard. This is a striking departure from the usual iconography for Christ and differs from the way in which Caravaggio renders Christ in his other paintings, even in his subsequent Supper at Emmaus (Milan, 1606). An ending added to the Gospel of Mark that describes Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road “in another form” (Mark 16:12) may have inspired Caravaggio’s decision to omit the beard. Such an altered appearance could explain why the disciples did not recognize Jesus on the road. But the choice to present a beardless Jesus does more than support narrative continuity—it alludes to the doctrinal teaching that resurrected bodies will be changed.

4. Humanity’s resurrection will occur on the last day, when Jesus will return to destroy every evil and establish the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:24). As already discussed, the basket of fruit points to the final day of harvest. But Caravaggio also suggests the end time by modeling his representation of Christ upon the Christ who stands in the center of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Both Christs are beardless. Both look down with closed eyes. The left arm and hand of each are positioned almost identically. They differ in that Michelangelo’s Christ lifts his right hand in judgment whereas Caravaggio’s extends his in blessing. The Christ who blesses at Emmaus will one day return as judge.

Supper at Emmaus: A Eucharistic argument.

The Supper at Emmaus is the first biblical account of a meal by Jesus after the Last Supper. Therefore, the Counter-Reformation Church commonly saw it as “the first Mass.” It thus became a scriptural locus for the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Catholic theologians were determined to defend this doctrine from Protestant attacks. They insisted that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were Christ’s true body and blood, whose transformation at the Mass was explained through the scholastic teaching of “transubstantiation.”

Although Luke locates the disciples’ recognition of Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35), Caravaggio situates it in the blessing of the bread. Christ’s extended hand over the bread is an allusion to the gesture of the priest at Mass, through whose consecration the bread and wine on the altar become the body and blood of Christ. Caravaggio has removed all the traditional artistic signs used to identify the risen Christ. He is beardless. His clothing and the position of his hands conceal any signs of the wounds from his Passion. Therefore, the only means of recognizing his true identity is through the blessing gesture. The Supper at Emmaus thereby promotes the doctrinal teaching that access to the risen Christ is through the sacrament of the Eucharist (Scribner, 1977).

Caravaggio has created a realistic scene of four men gathered around a table for supper. Yet fruits, shadows, appearances, and gestures support the doctrinal positions of Christ’s bodily resurrection and his true presence in the Eucharist. In both resurrection and sacrament, there is real body and real blood.

Poverty: Saints with Dirty Feet.

When the Madonna of Loreto (1603–1606) was first displayed in Rome, it divided the city. Caravaggio had included two poor pilgrims kneeling before the Virgin with their dirty feet thrust into the viewer’s face. The presence of the poor divided Rome. Many in high ecclesial office viewed the poor as an urban problem. Other forces within the church insisted that the poor were the presence of Christ. Philip Neri, whose ministry exercised a powerful effect upon Rome during Caravaggio’s work there, espoused the love of the poor and the cultivation of the virtue of humility. Together with other church leaders, such as Charles Borromeo, Philip promoted a “low church” movement that advocated simplicity and care for the unfortunate.

Caravaggio’s major works clearly align themselves with this pauperist movement of the Catholic Church. Characters of the Bible regularly appear in lowly guise. The apostles who gather around the risen Christ in Doubting Thomas (1602–1603) are not glorified saints but humble fishermen, their faces weathered by sun and water. As Thomas bends forward to place his finger into Christ’s side, the open slash in the body of the Savior parallels the rip in the shoulder of Thomas’s tattered clothing. The visual balance between these two openings ties together the impoverished apostle and his risen Lord. A rip also appears on the elbow of the disciple rising from his chair in the London Supper at Emmaus. The manner in which this defect of attire thrusts itself into the viewer’s visual plane emphasizes that one will find Christ in the midst of the poor.

Bare feet announce the presence of the poor. The feet of Christ and Nicodemus anchor the lower right quadrant of the Entombment (1602–1604). Nicodemus’s solid and flattened feet testify to a lifetime of hard labor. They relate to the feet of the dead Christ, floating above them. Again the tie is made between Christ debased by death and the disciple who must work to survive.

Caravaggio often portrays Mary as an ordinary and poor woman. His Death of the Virgin (1601–1603) was rejected at least in part because he made Mary’s death too real. She lies on a humble bed, her corpse bloated by the death struggle. Her bare feet stick out shockingly from her disheveled clothing, framed by the bare feet of two apostles who mourn her. In the Adoration of the Shepherds (1608–1609), Mary holds her newborn child close to her. Her body is extended on the ground as she leans against the manger. Her contact with the earth displays her humility. (Humility derives from humus, the Latin word for earth or ground.) Although Joseph and the shepherds are present, they form a group apart, leaving her strangely alone. This is not a joyful nativity. Mary and her child appear more as homeless refugees. One shepherd reaches out in what seems a loving advance, but his inability to connect only enhances the isolation of mother and child. They are the forgotten poor. Mary’s feet are covered. But Joseph sets one bare foot forward, elevated on a rock, so that no one can overlook its meaning.

The poor in Caravaggio’s paintings are understood as an aspect of his artistic realism. Yet their presence is not simply the result of his naturalistic style. Realism can, after all, render objects of wealth and beauty. The tattered apostles and humble Madonnas who populate Caravaggio’s compositions reflect a religious conviction that ultimately derives from the Bible. Under the influence of the “low church” movement, Caravaggio creates scriptural scenes proclaiming God’s dedication to the lowly—a commitment found in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus’s words, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), and those of the Letter of James, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom?” (Jas 2:5), comprise the lens through which Caravaggio paints. The poor appear in his oeuvre not simply because they are real but because they are God’s favorites.

Realistic Mysticism: Communion with the Divine.

Walter Friedlaender connects Caravaggio’s paintings with the popular meditative practices of Counter-Reformation Catholicism (1955, pp. 117–135). Friedlaender contends that methods of personal prayer, such as Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, were foundational to Caravaggio’s artistic style. Scholars debate which particular religious groups may have influenced Caravaggio to embrace such methods. But there is a general consensus that his art was nourished by these personal ways of prayer that traced their origins to medieval spiritual writers and became extremely popular in the Counter-Reformation period (Chorpenning, 1987).

Such methods direct the one who prays to place himself or herself into a biblical scene as if the event were taking place now. The one who meditates is then asked to focus on a particular aspect of the scene available to the senses. For example, in meditating on Peter’s betrayal of Christ in Luke 22:54–62, one should begin by imagining the sound of the cockcrow, the smell of the fire in the courtyard, or the wetness of Peter’s tears. Beginning with this concrete detail, the prayer then moves to a spiritual moment of revelation and increased communion with God. Foundational to these methods is the belief that the material will lead to the spiritual, that the concrete will produce the ineffable.

These ways of prayer influenced Caravaggio to paint in a manner that Friedlaender calls “realistic mysticism” (1955, p. 121). Caravaggio seeks to present the Christian mysteries in terms of the actual and the sensory. This is why he is not drawn to a style of idealized beauty but rather chooses to emphasize concrete objects and actions. His aim is not to raise viewers to some transcendental sphere but to lead them to the divine through an attentive reflection on the human and ordinary.

This dynamic explains the peculiarities of Caravaggio’s realism. He could paint objects with startling accuracy. A broken wire in the parchment window in the Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1600) and a dangling string on the violin played by the angel in the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1595) testify to his literal representations of the world. Yet his paintings are not factual depictions. “Details are realistic; the whole is theater” (Hibbard, 1983, p. 116). This seeming incongruity perfectly reflects the meditative methods of his time. The literal and common instigate a leap to something more. “Theater” might be a way to describe it in artistic terms, but it could also be called “spiritual experience.” As the natural object is brought before the viewer, it carries with it a supernatural quality, now somehow made tangible.

The Calling of St. Matthew: A choice to say “yes.”

The scene that Caravaggio presents in The Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1600) is only one verse of the New Testament: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him” (Matt 9:9). The text is short, but now the meditation begins.

As in many of Caravaggio’s great scene paintings, it takes a while to decide what is going on. We must search the canvas to discover its significance. Our eye is first drawn to the concrete: the colorful costumes of the men gathered around the table, the single window that comprises the only background, the light that cuts diagonally across the canvas illuminating the faces at the table. These faces with their surprised expressions lead us to recognize that something new is happening. Two figures have entered on the right, their hands pointing to those at the table. Who do they want? They want the bearded man pointing to himself in disbelief. As all these realistic details fall into place, we recognize that this is a biblical scene. Tracing back from the pointing hand just below the light, we realize that it belongs to the taller man who has just entered. The faintest hint of a halo shows him to be Jesus. He is calling the tax collector, Matthew.

Having focused on these literal details, we realize that the scene is not literal at all. The accurately rendered window does not indicate whether the action is inside or out. The light that dominates the painting comes from an unseen source—not from the window and not from Christ who is calling. These incongruities reveal that the painting is not the result of a careful mimicry of nature but the product of meditation on the spiritual meaning of being called by God. Jesus stands in the darkness because the painting is not a meditation on his person. Rather, the scene intends to evoke the mystery of the human response to a divine invitation. Caravaggio has captured the immediacy of the call expressed in the biblical text. The startled Matthew’s legs are bent. He is ready to stand and follow. With his right hand he pushes off the last coin to his client. He is leaving this profession behind. It is a good thing, for Jesus is not waiting. Although his hand is still extended, his feet have already turned to leave the scene.

But the picture is not simply about Matthew. It invites the viewer to examine his or her answer to God’s call. The supernatural light shows that there is no place to hide. The jumble of lit faces presents a variety of options regarding the divine invitation. All are illumined. Not all will respond. The young boys face the light with amused incomprehension. The two men at the far left do not even notice the light that bathes them. They are focused on their money. Only the surprised tax collector takes the light in. He will say yes. Caravaggio’s artistic meditation leads the viewer to a spiritual crossroad. Will we accept the call to follow? Concretely drawn realities have been used to present the story of Matthew’s choice. But they lead us to examine our own openness to God’s will. This is a profound spiritual exercise. Ignatius of Loyola would be pleased.

Conversion of St Paul: Talking with God.

Unlike the brief scriptural verse that undergirds the call of Matthew, the account of Paul’s conversion is extensive. The event is recounted three times in the book of Acts: 9:1–19A, 22:3–21, and 26:9–18. Details vary among the accounts. Only Paul falls to the ground in 9:4 and 22:7, but his companions fall with him in 26:14. His companions hear the voice and do not see anyone in 9:7 but hear no voice and see the light in 22:9. Paul becomes blind when he opens his eyes in 9:8 but is blinded by the light in 22:11. What is common to all three accounts is the light from the sky and the questioning of Paul by Jesus. Caravaggio selects what he requires from these passages to create the Conversion of St. Paul (1600–1601).

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The Conversion of Saint Paul (1600–1601). Paul’s conversion is described three times in the Acts of the Apostles (9:1–19; 22:3–21; and 26:9–18).

Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.

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We must again discern what is going on. What the eye first sees is a horse. It is a huge one. Caravaggio allots three quarters of his painting to this steed. He is not an idealized creature of military exploits but a heavy proletarian beast drawn with a realism of form and conception. As we follow the curve of his massive body, we encounter the face of the man who holds his bridle. This poor and gray-bearded groom is the only sign of the companions of which Acts speaks. The gaze of both groom and horse is downward, registering concern and some confusion. As we look with them we see for the first time the young soldier supine on the ground. His closed eyes suggest a blindness, and we understand that this is the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

All is concrete and natural. Yet the painting is suffused with a supernatural sense. Christ does not appear as a character in the scene. The light falling directly down on Paul conveys his presence. There is a remarkable stillness to the scene, indicating that the conversation between Jesus and Paul has been interiorized. It is taking place in the heart of the one who lies in the dust. Using the elements of the natural world, Caravaggio allows us to see a supernatural event: a dialogue between one who is opposed to God’s will and the God who would change him.

The terms of the conversation are exquisitely suggested. The horse whose body reflects the light implies the almighty power of the one who calls. The white coat of the shoulder and bent foreleg evoke a descending lightning bolt. Were that leg to come down, the immense weight of the animal would crush the chest of the man below it. The supernatural interaction that Caravaggio intimates is not equal or fair. Paul is no match for the power that hovers above him. Yet the gentle manner in which the horse lifts his leg suggests that the greater will defer to the lesser. The divine will accommodate the creature. God will give Paul the freedom to decide.

What will Paul decide? It is not clear. Caravaggio has captured the moment in which the conversation has just begun. Of course, the viewer knows Paul’s final choice. But in this moment the young soldier’s heart is still in play. His ambivalence is captured by the wide spread of his upraised arms. In one way they express his confusion, a blinded man feeling his way in the dark. At the same time they foretell his eventual acceptance, an apostle reaching out with both arms to embrace the light.

The concrete representation of a horse, a groom, and a fallen soldier bathed in light leads to a meditation on the divine–human encounter. The viewer who undertakes this spiritual exercise will in time leave the natural representations behind and enter the mystery. The believer who meditates on these natural forms will confront the wonder of an almighty creator who defers to sinful creatures and a creature who receives the gift to converse with the Eternal Word.

Caravaggio’s personal life was deeply flawed. It was characterized by violence, murder, and exile. Yet none of these detriments deterred him from creating paintings of spiritual communion. Even sinners can pray. Caravaggio’s realistic mysticism interprets the Bible with a purpose remarkably similar to that of its original authors. This is why his paintings, even to this day, thrust viewers onto a meditative stage where they must evaluate themselves not merely in terms of their appreciation of art and human drama but in light of their own possible relationship with God.

[See also BAROQUE VISUAL ART.]

Bibliography

  • Chorpenning, Joseph F. “Another Look at Caravaggio and Religion.” Artibus et Historiae 8, no. 16 (1987): 149–158.
  • Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955. Six essays. The discussion of Caravaggio’s relationship to religion grounds the modern debate. Essential reading.
  • Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. New York: Norton, 2010. Vibrant and eminently readable, Graham-Dixon employs archival information to bridge the gaps of biographical evidence. His constructs are not always convincing but regularly convey a living sense of Caravaggio’s world.
  • Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. A full-blown biography with a surprisingly unenthusiastic assessment of the artist’s abilities and a proclivity to psychological analysis. Perceptive discussions of the works themselves.
  • Langdon, Helen. Caravaggio: A Life. London: Chatto & Windus, 1998. Sober and scholarly, the most successful modern biography. Especially effective in describing the cultural context of Milan and Rome. Weaker on the great paintings of Caravaggio’s exile.
  • Longhi, Roberto. Caravaggio. Edited by Giovanni Previtali. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1982. An insightful analysis of Caravaggio’s major paintings by the scholar whose research re-established Caravaggio’s reputation and popularity in the twentieth century. Available only in Italian.
  • Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. London: Phaidon, 1998. More of a review of Caravaggio’s paintings than a biography. Puglisi is balanced and current in her positions, providing valuable insights into the artist’s oeuvre. A valuable book.
  • Robb, Peter. M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. New York: Picador, 1998. Excoriated by art critics as idiosyncratic and unreliable, this best-selling reconstruction of Caravaggio’s life succeeds in describing the brutal times in which the artist lived and offers some brilliant insights into his paintings.
  • Scribner, Charles, III. “In Alia Effigie: Caravaggio’s London Supper at Emmaus.Art Bulletin 59, no. 3 (1977): 375–382.
  • Spike, John T. Caravaggio. New York: Abbeville, 2001. An illustrated essay on Caravaggio’s life and work, joined to an extensive CD-ROM catalog of the paintings with bibliographic references.
  • Vodret, Rossella. Caravaggio: The Complete Works. Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2010. A collection of Caravaggio’s works containing only those attributed to him with “absolute certainty.” (Yet some critics would disagree with the selection.)
  • Warma, Susanne J. “Christ, First Fruits, and the Resurrection: Observations on the Fruit Basket in Caravaggio’s London ‘Supper at Emmaus.’ ” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 53 (1990): 583–586.
  • Zuffi, Stefano. Discovering Caravaggio: The Art Lover’s Guide to Understanding Symbols in His Paintings. New York: Rizzoli International, 2010. More visual than textual, Zuffi offers a modest introduction before employing cutout overlays to isolate details of Caravaggio’s works. The approach is only partly successful. The pictures themselves are lush and arresting.

George M. Smiga