Thursday, 9 February 2012

Favourite paintings - Caravaggio

If I was to be give one painting in the world to own, then I think it would probably be this one.

It's The Deposition from the Cross by Caravaggio, painted in around 1600-1604, and it's in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican in Rome.  It's just beautiful.  You look at the real thing close up and you think 'how did he do that??'

It shows Christ being taken down from the cross to be laid in his tomb.  It's a huge painting, and when you're standing in front of it and looking up at it, the figures seem to tumble down onto you in an almost inevitable movement towards the grave, in which you seem to be standing.

It's a fine example of the dramatic lighting that Caravaggio was famous for 'chiaroscuro' or 'light dark'.  It's almost like looking at a still from a film where the characters are bathed in a spotlight.  

Caravaggio was pretty clever in his use of light - often the paintings were commissioned for specific places within chapels (such as in S Maria del Popolo in Rome), so he used real light sources in the chapels which hit the figures in the paintings in the same direction as the painted light source.  In The Calling of St Matthew, this is divine light, following the gesture of the hand of Christ as he calls Matthew.  

But it is also real light from a window to the right in the chapel where the painting is hung.  Caravaggio is playing a complicated game on lots of different levels.  His paintings communicate with and refer to their surroundings as well as with us.  He's extending the 'world' of the painting into our personal space, which is a pretty conceptual, sculptural idea.  

He filled his work with plain ordinary people in contemporary clothes in the scenes of biblical events.  Sometimes he even included a portrait of himself in the scene, to say 'I'm right here - you are too.'  The figures in the deposition have dirty fingernails and bare feet and struggle awkwardly with their task, something which outraged patrons and shocked polite society when they saw Caravaggio's paintings.   I doubt he cared much.  His message was that religion isn't about saints and heaven, as so much of Baroque art was, it's about ordinary people right here and right now (and that included women - he was an amazing painter of women as real women).  It was totally inclusive.  He didn't compromise.

To get the drama of the light and dark in the paintings, Caravaggio painted quickly out of a dark ground, moving towards the light colours.  There weren't any preparatory sketches, he just got right on with it.  

He painted from life, posing a group of models, and then scratching the main thrust of the composition and main lines into the ground with the end of a brush.  If you stand to the side of a lot of the paintings, you can see this when the light catches the marks.  (You can see it especially clearly on The Sacrifice of Isaac.)  

He painted fast.  He had to, as there's only so long models can hold poses like that, plus he was usually on the run.  He had quite a temper, and was always getting into trouble.  This was a man who matched his work.  He was dressed in black, dark eyes, dark hair, dark beard, slept in this clothes because he was always ready for a quick getaway.  He picked a fight with a waiter about a plate of artichokes (the old butter/olive oil debate).  He killed someone during a game of tennis.  His paintings were all light and dark and simple and complex, and so was his life, all contradictions.  What a guy.

I could go on for ages.  Luckily, the world's hottest fine art historian has recently published the definitive biography of Caravaggio, so if you're interested, read Andrew Graham Dixon's 'Caravaggio; A Life Sacred and Profane'.   

Agree?  Disagree? (Not with Andrew Graham Dixon being hot - no-one disagrees with that on my blog).  Got a favourite painting of your own you'd care to share?  Then let me know, either below or at


  1. Too much darkest dark.
    Depressingly doom laden.
    Prefer prettier paintings.

    Happy that you like it, though!

  2. Art is a language, and language isn't always about saying pretty things. The painting is not only a reflection of Caravaggio's personality, but of the times in which he lived, and both of them were pretty dark.

    I don't find it depressing. It's a miraculous, glowing, jewel-like thing. But I appreciate it's not everyone's cup of espresso.