Thursday, 25 October 2012

Caravaggio and the Importance of Seeing the Real Thing

When I studied my MA in Fine Art, we were sent to look at artwork in situ across Europe.  We were told that, in order to understand art, there was no substitute for seeing the real thing.  I'd never been abroad before, so the whole trip was rather mind-blowing.

One of the places our class of 14 visited back in the late summer of 1983 was Rome, and one of the top places to see on our list was the church of S Luigi dei Francesi, which holds the St Matthew cycle of paintings by Caravaggio.

When you see them in books, you see this.  Here's St Matthew being called by Christ.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew (Oil, 1600)

Here is St Matthew being instructed by an angel.

Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel (Oil, 1602)
And here's how the story ends up, with the martyrdom of St Matthew.

Caravaggio, Martyrdom of St Matthew (Oil, 1600)

All well and good.  But seeing them in books doesn't give you an idea of their size, for example.  Also, they were painted for very specific positions in a particular chapel of the church, taking into account the architectural features which surround them.  This is very important to the understanding of the works.

Here's the paintings in the chapel, if you stand back from them.

You'll see the St Matthew receiving the holy word from the angel is above the altar, and the two other paintings flank the sides.  The angel painting wasn't the first one that Caravaggio did for the centrepiece - the original one was rejected for being too radical.  Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the second world war, but here's a photo of it.

Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel (Oil, 1600, First Version (destroyed))

The first version encapsulates what Caravaggio was trying to do with his religious paintings - paint religion as something that real, ordinary people could connect with by showing saints as real, ordinary people.  Unfortunately, this St Matthew was far too real and ordinary for the Church.  He's shown as an awkward, middle-aged man with dirty feet thrust out towards the viewer, his hand actually being touched and guided across the page by an angel.  It was too much.

However, his second version - with a suitable distance between St Matthew and the angel - still has a concession to Caravaggio's radical vision.  In the church, you are looking up at the painting, over the altar.  The marble altar is in real life, and then it is also along the bottom of the painting.  St Matthew is rather oddly kneeling on a stool to take dictation, and the end of the stool is thrust out, off-balance, over the edge as if it is going to tumble down onto the altar.  So on the face of it, it is a balanced painting, but on closer inspection it is actually about being caught off-balance - it thus externalises in a more subtle way what St Matthew is feeling.

But back to the importance of seeing the work in real life.  It's all about the light.

The Chapel reads like a giant book, from left to right.

On the left, in the Calling, the light comes from the right hand side.

The direction of the light, which just catches Christ's summoning hand and falls on Matthews face, is therefore a guiding spiritual light, the light of God.

However, remember there's a real window above the altar in the chapel.

So there is also real light coming down from above - but not at the same angle as in the painting.

Stand right at the centre of the entrance to the Chapel, and you'll see that the light hits...

..the face of St Matthew, like a natural spotlight.  How clever is that??

In the Angel painting, the light source is from above, from the direction of Heaven, where the angel is descending from.  The light therefore is also a spiritual light.  It doesn't get any natural light from the window above.

The Martyrdom painting on the right has the light source coming from the left, same as the natural light, which comes in to spotlight...

...the palm of martyrdom being handed to St Matthew.

Compositionally, it would have been impossible to put St Matthew's head up at the top, at the point where the light hits, so Caravaggio had to work out some other solution.  His answer was to spotlight the attribute of matrydom instead of the protagonist, which in turn also drives the dynamicism of the composition.  It makes our eyes dart round to read and try to make sense of the moment of confusion, giving a sense of movement and action.

The scene is set at a baptism (hence the opportunity for some semi-naked male figures), so we are standing down actually in the water of the baptism pool (the dark void on the edge of which St Matthew is lying).  We, too, are being baptised, are in the pool, and the implication is that we, too, are in a vulnerable state of near-nakedness.  That makes the moment of the killing of St Matthew, during a sacrament, even more of a betrayal, both for him and for us.

The natural spotlight hits the arm of the angel which carries the palm frond, which in turn drives our eyes down the upraised hand of St Matthew and the heart of the story and the action.  We then read down his other arm, and then in a clockwise circle round the action, with characters dynamically bursting off outwards into the darkness as if an explosion has gone off.

Just imagine Caravaggio getting the commission for these paintings, and coming into the Church to look at the site where his work would be placed.  

He would have stood at the spot where visitors can stand today, and considered every aspect of the actual site, all the existing paintings, the decorations, the altar, the window, the way the light came in, the angles, the architecture, how they all played and worked together.  How could he use all these elements to give power to his canvasses, to help tell the story more effectively so that people could feel that they were right in the heart of the biblical action, making it real and relevant? 

He would obviously thought very carefully about how and where the natural light would come in and worked out where, on his canvasses, he would have to position the narrative and the figures in order to make the whole thing work.  So he's using the actual space of the Chapel as part of his narrative. It's all part of a multi-media, 3D concept.

It's very exciting when you see it and realise what he's doing, using the light on the very day you visit the Chapel as part of your experience and understanding of the paintings, even though it was conceived as an idea over 400 years ago by someone who's long since dead.  He set it going and it's still working away.  

The pictures weren't meant to be seen in books by scholars.  They only come alive when you, as one ordinary person, stand in front of them, in that church, at one particular point, and read them.  Caravaggio is speaking directly one-to-one with you through the Chapel as a whole.  

The paintings really speak on a totally personal level, and that's a very powerful thing.  The man was an absolute genius.

He even put himself in the painting.  Here here is.

 That's him at the back with the beard.

He's saying I'm human and fallable and vulnerable, and I, too, can bear witness to great religious moments, just as you can. 

So go and see the paintings.  They may not be as easy to see or study as they are in books.  But in order to understand them, there's no substitute for seeing the real thing.


  1. That's a wonderful insight into this incredible work. Thank you

  2. Many thanks for your kind comment! Thank you for taking the time to read the article.