COLUMN SIX: That other Michaelangelo

Detail from Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loretto, or Pilgrim's Madonna, c. 1604-6, located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church of Sant'Agostino, near the Piazza Navona in Rome. WIKIPEDIA IMAGE

How would Caravaggio get on in the 21st century

Special to the VOICE

As an admirer of that irredeemably wicked genius Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, I sometimes wonder how he would be received in an age that assumes a loftier morality.

The guy had trouble enough fitting into his own time and place—17th Century Rome—and seems to have divided his short life between painting masterpieces and languishing in prison.

It wasn’t only that he acquired a reputation of bedding just about anyone with a pulse, regardless of gender or youth; in any case, his own patrons included here and there a wealthy noble, or influential cardinal, who wasn’t above doing the same thing. Caravaggio also had a habit of picking fights in the street, insulting the cops, bashing people on the head for not acknowledging his gentlemanly status, and on one occasion actually killing a hated rival in an illegal duel.

Add to all this his penchant for casting prostitutes he knew as the Virgin Mary, and other saints renowned for their immaculateness, like Catherine, Ursula and Lucy. Perhaps because he also “knew” his models in the Biblical sense he felt they qualified for the sanctified roles he gave them. The one who posed as Mary Magdalen, of course, was already qualified by profession.

Unlike his contemporaries, however, he never painted a female nude; his women kept their clothes on. Male subjects on the other hand, including the Christ, were often painted in various stages of undress, down to semi-erotic portraits of a young John the Baptist and a beckoning Cupid, in full-frontal poses. His model for the latter was an adolescent boy who lived with the artist for a time. Speculation about what went on there remains understandably rife.

So what would we make of this arrogant, unfiltered, pugnacious and lascivious man who became the foremost painter of his day? A possible agnostic who painted the most compelling and visceral religious art of his period, and achieved a lasting impact on artistic technique thereafter.

He was certainly an iconoclast in the art world of 17th century Italy.

While the Counter-Reformation called for artists to elevate divine figures, saints and Biblical tableaux above the merely mortal, he painted subjects that were poorly (often minimally) clothed, with bare, dirty feet, in humble locations like hostelries and jails. Some of his commissioned work was rejected because it didn’t follow the code.

His revolutionary “chiaroscuro” method infused energy and drama into his paintings with a single light source that lit up faces, hands, gestures and reflections against darkness and shadow.

His scenes were dynamic, each catching a moment in a sequence of action at its most riveting point.

His natural and precise depictions of intense eyes, expressive faces, textured clothing and tapestry, down to beaded bubbles winking at the brim of wine decanters, made every divine painting a study in earthly realism.

He never sketched an outline, but painted from scratch.

Many of Caravaggio’s paintings portray violent moments like the flagellation of Christ, the crucifixion of Peter, the beheading of St. John (Holofernes, St. Matthew, Goliath and Medusa), for the simple reason that the narratives themselves were often violent, like the times he lived in, when criminals and heretics were publicly beheaded most days of the week.

But he also portrays a passion and a love for the sacred that instantly impress the viewer. And the eyes have it every time. Eyes intense with emotion, courage, self-denial and peace. Eyes that fix on someone across the room, or in a close encounter. Eyes that are never left to gaze into the middle distance, or upwards to a vague heaven.

So, how might a Caravaggio be received today?

How would he have responded to our own counter-reformation code of correctness, cultural appropriation and identity politics? One whose list of offending words, unacceptable views, and non-debatable pronouncements, grows by the day?

Margaret Atwood once wrote a short story parodying the code of correctness. It’s a fairy tale that begins, “There was once a poor girl, as beautiful as she was good, who lived with her wicked stepmother in a house in the forest.”

The imagined censor quickly goes to work on it—the girl can’t be poor because poverty is relative and, hey, she has a house; she can’t be beautiful because all description is a kind of hegemonic oppression; she can’t be white but must be ethnic; good and wicked are subjective moralistic epithets and therefore invalid; the stepmother was likely abused by her own father when she was young, and as “we all know what those twisted, repressed middle-aged men are like the villain should be a step-father; and please get rid of “girl”—if she’s going to be married in the end, then lose that condescending paternalistic terminology and call her a woman.

The storyteller begins all over again with the corrections in place.

“There was—”

“So?” (our censor is still not happy).

“So what?”

“So why not here?”

Atwood makes the point that some “warriors” might be less concerned to correct social injustice than to have the upper hand.

Imagine such a critic observing, say, Caravaggio’s stunning portrayal of St. Paul’s conversion.

Why is Paul forced to become a Christian, they might ask—why not a Sikh or a Muslim, and so what if they’d been slaughtering each other for the past 500 years—and why are there no women in this painting?

The sudden light from Heaven has scared the crap out of Paul’s horse, its wild eyes and violently torqued head and neck displaying clear signs of animal abuse.

That fierce-looking soldier in the foreground might traumatize the sensitive viewer.

And then there’s Caravaggio himself, the degenerate and unreformed reprobate.

Where to begin with that?

The London Times columnist Bernard Levin once responded to a letter writer who took issue with the paintings of John Constable. The renowned painter of The Haywain and The Cornfield “was firmly on the side of the ruling classes,” the correspondent declared. Constable never showed the downtrodden peasant burning ricks, for example, and his fixation with skies enabled him to “avert his eyes from the real social conditions” of the impoverished and oppressed farm labourer.

Levin goes on to say, tongue firmly in cheek, that Constable wasn’t the only painter to ignore the class struggle: “Veronese frequently painted members of the aristocracy with pleasant expressions on their faces; van Ostade suggested that members of the working classes sometimes got drunk, without making it clear this was only because of the capitalists’ exploitation of their labour and constant misery; Renoir was a member of the National Front; Velasquez spoke lightly of the Socialist Workers’ Party; Rubens had a bank account in the Cayman Islands, Dürer rhymes with Führer; and Van Dyck was a male chauvinist pig.”

When the offending statues have been removed from their plinths and Shakespeare from the curriculum, will our own great artists become the next target? Artists who leave it to others to take on the burning issues of climate change, pipelines, Doug Ford, jury reform, recovering plastic from the oceans, and advancing the cause of universal veganism—all so essential for our survival, no question—while they fathom the meaning, rather than geopolitics, of life on earth.

Artists who prefer to celebrate the vagaries of the human heart and the narrative of our mythologies, through the medium of words, paint, stone and music. I believe these have a worth that overrides politics.

Politicizing art can sometimes lead to pointless conclusions, like Caravaggio once killed a man, therefore his art is bad.

If we’re preoccupied with sitting in judgment of the artist instead of valuing the art, what does that say about us? 

I think Jesus answered that question a long time ago. 

About the Author

The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.