Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Shedding Light on Caravaggio

Keli Holzapfel
Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2004

I. Introduction


In the late 16th century, the Baroque style was starting to emerge. This period is characterized by open compositions with elements, often times placed diagonally, that encourage the illusion of movement. A loose and free technique was consistently used among artists. Artists also tried to create a sense of unity among the different elements or figures.
Along with this new style, in the early 17th century, there was a revival in naturalism. Here the aim was to reproduce nature without any improvements. This was brought about by a new interest in the natural sciences, such as biology, anatomy, physics and astronomy. One important follower of this new interest in the natural sciences was Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte.

Also during this time the Counter Reformation was influencing the subject matter and its representations in art. It encouraged a renewal in the interest in martyrs. In the depiction of these martyrs, the Catholic Church encouraged the images to be visually and emotionally appealing so as to encourage piety and faith in heretics as well as to inspire present worshipers. With these representations of horrifying scenes of martyrdom, the Church wanted to reach the largest audience possible in order to regain Catholic worshipers. As a result, this time period is marked by the patronage of the Catholic Church and Catholic nobility in Rome.

A popular figure of influence in Rome at the time was Saint Filippo. At this time he created a religious atmosphere of the simplicity of faith and mystic devotion. He also exemplified humility, realism and was characterized as not only emotionally profound, but also as lacking of class consciousness. His popularity in Rome was felt in throughout society, and several of Caravaggio’s patrons were involved in Saint Filipo’s inner circle of the Congregation of Oratory. Saint Filippo died five years after Caravaggio arrived in Rome, and most likely influenced the young Caravaggio during this short time.


In 1571, Michelangelo Merisi was born in Caravaggio, a small town in the region of Lombardy, which later became his namesake. At a young age he started to work under the painter Simone Peterzano in Milan. Here he was influenced by Lombardy art, which is characterized by a realistic style with careful drawing and an interest in still-life. During this time Caravaggio’s paintings reflect this style, in which he painted mostly still life.
In 1592 he arrived in Rome. Although not confirmed, it is suggested that before his apprenticeship with Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino, Caravaggio fell ill and was taken to the Hospital della Consolazione. It is here that Caravaggio was first introduced to the Congregation of the Oratory and Saint Filippo, which later influenced his religious paintings. As mentioned above, once in Rome Caravaggio worked for Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino. It is through this artist who was gaining popularity, especially with the Pope, that Caravaggio’s work was shown to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. Soon after Cardinal del Monte took Caravaggio into his home, supporting the realism portrayed in his paintings. At this time Caravaggio continued to paint still-lifes with half figures, but started to include low-life genre scenes as well. Cardinal del Monte encouraged Caravaggio’s unique style of detailed realism, reflecting his own interest in observation of natural sciences. Through Cardinal del Monte Caravaggio not only continued to be introduced to other powerful figures in Rome, for example to Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, but also received his first public commission at the Cardinal's recommendation. On July 23, 1599 Caravaggio signed the contract to paint The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew in the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. On September 24, 1600, Caravaggio received his second public commission to paint The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which he received through the recommendation of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani. Later, after rejecting the sculpture of Jacob Cobaert as the altar piece for the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio was commission to paint the altarpiece on February 7, 1602, of which the subject was St. Matthew and the Angel. From his first public commission in July 1599 to fleeing Rome in May 1606, Caravaggio obtained six public commissions that included five altarpieces and four lateral paintings. Also during this time Caravaggio built up a reputation for himself throughout Rome. He wandered the streets, clothed in a black cloak and always carrying a sword. He constantly engaged in fights, being easily provoked, and often was seen with a gang of artists whose motto was “Without hope or fear.” During this time what is known about Caravaggio’s personal life is depicted through his voluminous police record.

In May of 1606, after losing a tennis match, Caravaggio argued with the victor and ended with Caravaggio fleeing from Rome as a murder fugitive. He first fled to Genua, then Zagarola, Naples, and Malta. In Malta he painted the portrait of the Grand Master of Knights. Later Caravaggio insulted a member of their order, and was again forced to flee, but this time to Sicily. After several commissions here, he returned to Naples and was ambushed by the Knights and wounded. At this point, he decided to sail back to Rome in hope of a pardon. Along the shore he was unjustly imprisoned by the Spanish Guard, and when they realized he was the wrong man and released Caravaggio, his transport with all of his belongings was gone. It is recorded that he then ran along the Porto d’Ercole in the summer heat in search for the transport and collapsed. He later developed a fever and died on July 18th, 1610, just short of receiving a pardon to enter Rome, decreed by the Pope on July 31st.


Caravaggio’s first public commission was for the Frenchman Matteu Contrel (Matteo Contarelli in Italian), who was appointed Cardinal in 1583. Contarelli bought the chapel in the French National Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to be his burial site. In 1565 he commissioned Girolamo Muziano to paint the walls, altarpiece and vault with six scenes of the life of St. Matthew, his patron saint. In 1585 Contarelli died, leaving the responsibility of decorating the chapel to the Crescenzi family. Later in 1587, the Crescenzi family hired Jacob Cobaert to sculpt the altarpiece, and in 1591 they commissioned Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino to paint the frescoes on the vault. During this time it is possible that Caravaggio, who was under the apprenticeship of Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino, worked on these frescoes. Muziano died in 1592, never having completed any work on the chapel, and with increasing commissions from the Pope, Giuseppe Cesari d’Arpino also neglected to finish his work. Cobaert too failed to complete the altarpiece until 1602. In 1599, after over thirty years of an incomplete chapel, the priests at San Luigi dei Francesi appealed to the Fabbrica di San Pietro to take over the responsibility of finishing the chapel, claiming that the Crescenzi family was refraining from finishing the decoration of the chapel in order to live off the interest of the money that was left for this purpose. On July 23, 1599, the Fabbrica di San Pietro, with the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, commissioned Caravaggio to paint the lateral walls of the chapel with The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Included in this contract were guidelines requested by Cardinal Contarelli before his death concerning the figures in the paintings and their placement within them. Later, with the rejection of Jacob Cobaert’s sculpture as the altarpiece, the priests commissioned Caravaggio on February 7, 1602 to paint the altarpiece of St. Matthew and the Angel. The first version of this was deemed inappropriate, causing Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani to intervene, calming an angry Caravaggio. Giustiniani bought the original piece, and commissioned Caravaggio to repaint the St. Matthew and the Angel that is now in the Contarelli Chapel.


Caravaggio’s second public commission was for Tiberio Cerasi. Cerasi was born in 1544 and practiced law in the papal court. Eventually he left this position to pursue an ecclesiastical career. In 1556 he acquired enough wealth to buy the post of Treasurer General to the Apostolic Chamber, putting himself in charge of papal expenditure. This also put him into contact with Marchese Vincenzio Giustiniani, who was the Depositary General to the Apostolic Chamber and in charge of receiving and disbursing funds. Through this connection, Marchese Vincenzio Giustiniani recommended Caravaggio to Cerasi to paint the lateral walls of his chapel. On September 24, 1600, Caravaggio was contracted to paint two cypress panels just over two meters high for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. In the contract he was specified to provide figural drawings (called bozzetti) to the patron before painting. The first paintings of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter were rejected and acquired by Cardinal Sannesio. Today the only original of The Conversion of St. Paul remains in existence. Caravaggio then finished the two paintings of The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter that can be viewed in the chapel today.



The Calling of St. Matthew, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and St. Matthew and the Angel are all situated in the dimly lit Contarelli Chapel. To see these paintings, the viewer had to make an effort to go directly to the Chapel in able to discern the specific details and subject matter of each painting.

The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew appear on the lateral walls of the chapel, while St. Matthew and the Angel is placed in the middle of the two paintings as the altarpiece.

In the Cerasi Chapel, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter occupy the lateral walls. This Chapel is also dark, again requiring the observer to physically walk over to the painting in order to properly view them. It is also important to note that Caravaggio took into account that these paintings were to be located on the lateral walls. As a result, he painted them to be seen from an angle, not from straight ahead. He also created diagonals in these paintings toward the altar of the Chapel, drawing the viewers attention from his paintings to the altar.


The commission for the Contarelli Chapel works marks the beginning of Caravaggio’s religious paintings, and continued not only with the Cerasi Chapel paintings, but to Caravaggio’s death. Each one exemplified his new innovative techniques of chiascuro and tenebrism. Chiascuro is an Italian word designating the contrast of dark and light in a painting, creating spatial depth and volumetric forms through slight gradations in the intensity of light and shadow. Tenebrism is a term signifying the use of strong chiascuro and artificially illuminated areas to create a dramatic contrast of light and dark in a painting. Along with the use of chaiscuro and tenebrism, Caravaggio’s paintings showed a new religious intensity and psychology. His religious scenes make devotion more human and accessible to the worshiper. To create a more emotional appeal, he used dark colors to create his forms instead of the soft tints of earlier painters in order to convey the realness and flesh and blood of the his figures. All of these characteristics, as well as symbolism and carefully planned composition, all emerge in Caravaggio’s paintings in the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel.


In The Calling of St. Matthew, the background is dark, creating a dramatic highlight of the figures in the painting from an outside light. The outside light is from an unknown source and falls more directly on the figure of St. Matthew. Christ and St. Peter are standing on the right side of the painting. Christ has his arm stretched outward toward Saint Matthew, his hand in a pointing gesture that perfectly imitates the pointing gesture painted by Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. The beam of light leads the viewer’s eye from the figure of Christ to St. Matthew. St. Matthew repeats the pointing gesture of Christ questioningly at himself, with an expression of shock clearly shown on his face. Caravaggio chose to paint this scene when St. Matthew is in-between is new life as an Apostle and his old life as a tax collector. This juxtaposition can be seen by the fact that his other hand is fondling a pile of gold at his side, and there is even a coin stuck in his hat. This represents his mindset: half of his mind is occupied by the sin of his life centered around money and the other half of his mind, shown by his surprised gesture and his focus on Christ with the light highlighting him, is turned toward the salvation from Christ. This theme of sin versus salvation is further conveyed by the composition of the other figures in the piece, especially with the figures arranged around St. Matthew. The two figures on his right notice the Christ and are looking into the light away from the money on the table. They have a chance to be saved. On the left of St. Matthew, the figures are concentrating so much on the money, they do not see the light, and thus miss salvation. The old man standing, leaning hunched over further shows this through his use of spectacles. The use of spectacles in paintings was a device used to signify short-sightedness. In this painting, the short-sightedness is due to money, and the man cannot see past mortal richness to reach eternal enlightenment.
Another feature of this painting is the comparison between Christ and St. Peter, and St. Matthew and his cohorts around the table. St. Matthew and his friends are dressed in bright modern clothes. This places them in a certain time frame compared to the dark robes of Christ and St. Peter, which humble and somber, are almost timeless. The men around the table are also wearing shoes unlike the barefoot Christ and St. Peter. It also shows the importance of material goods to the men at the table instead of the humble and divine focus of Christ and St. Peter.
The placement of St. Peter is also important in this painting. There is uncertainty whether St. Peter was added in later, or was meant to appear in the painting from the beginning, which has also sparked several theories about his positioning. One is that he was placed there to appease the instructions given to him by the patron to have Christ and his followers in the painting. Another theory is that St. Peter is placed in front of Christ in order to make the figure of Christ more obscure. The last theory of the position of St. Peter is that he is placed in-between the figure of Christ and viewer to signify that to reach salvation and Christ, the viewer must first go through the church, which is represented by St. Peter.
The surroundings of the painting also hold meaning as well as controversy. The window above Christ has a frame in the shape of a cross, which is well placed symbolism for the religious painting. Behind the men around the table, on the left side of the painting, there is a dark strip of paint. This could be the corner of a building, showing that the men are actually outside of Roman Palace, and not in the interior of a building. Another marker of whether the scene takes place inside or outside is that the window has a shutter that opens towards the viewer. These make it seem as though the scene is taking place outside. Others believe that it is an interior due to the fact that the men are gathered around a table, and the light from outside of the painting is shining into the darkness of the room. No one knows the correct interpretation.
One last key features of this painting is the technique in which the figures are painted. The colors used by Caravaggio create voluminous figures that seem to invade the viewer’s space, especially when the light falls on them. It is also interesting to note that the figure of Christ seems to be striding forward, yet his feet are pointing toward the viewer.


Similar to The Calling of St. Matthew, the background of St. Matthew and the Angel is dark. The figures of St. Matthew and the Angel are highlighted with a light from an unknown source, again creating a more dramatic effect. The subject of the painting is St. Matthew, in a moment of inspiration from the angel above him, writing his part of the Gospel. Since the Gospel is one of St. Matthew’s greatest achievements, it is placed in the most important place as the altarpiece. In a moment of inspiration, St. Matthew is sitting on the edge of his bench. The bench itself is almost falling of the edge of the painting into the viewer’s space. St. Matthew is deep in thought as he writes with the angel above him, ticking off the genealogy of Christ on his fingers. Both figures are fully swathed with drapery. The figure of St. Matthew himself is that of a mature philosopher. Unlike the first version, this version of St. Matthew is more similar to Caravaggio’s other portrayals of the saint.
The composition of the painting is vertical. The viewer is drawn from the angel above and then down to St. Matthew writing the Gospel. The exact position of the angel is unknown. Although the angel looks as though he is coming out toward the painting, and thus closer to the viewer than St. Matthew, St. Matthew is actually turning away from the viewer to look at the angel. This gives the impression that the angel is on the other side of St. Matthew.
The position of the angel above St. Matthew exhibits the hierarchical relationship between the angel and St. Matthew. The true divinity of the relationship is shown by the tilt of the angel’s head toward St. Matthew and the tilt of St. Matthew’s head toward the angel. Both are fully involved in this transcendental moment. It has also been hypothesized that Caravaggio painted the figure of the angel based off of theater actors who hang from wires.


After stopping work on the first version of this piece due to difficulty in painting his first large scale work with multiple figures (the original can be seen underneath through the use of x-ray technology), Caravaggio painted The Calling of St. Matthew and then successfully continued work on The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. The subject of this piece is the execution of St. Matthew in the temple he converted into a Catholic Church. Continuing the use of a dark atmosphere with a light from an unknown source focusing on the main subject of the piece, Caravaggio created dramatic effects with light as well as using the light to make his figures appear to be in three dimensions. The main focus of the painting is on St. Matthew, laying helplessly on his back with the half nude executioner standing above him with his sword raised. Caravaggio chose to portray the exact moment before St. Matthew’s death, and perhaps showing the moment when the executioner pauses briefly before swiftly bringing the blade upon St. Matthew. St. Matthew is elevated off the ground on steps, and the columns in the back of the scene can barely be discerned. The figure of St. Matthew has his hand raised in defense and is also wounded. The curve of the angel over St. Matthew’s head is juxtaposed with the sharpness of the executioner. Here, Caravaggio creates three lines of movement that draw the attention of the viewer not only to the main action of the piece, but also to a cross. The three lines of movement are from the arm of St. Matthew, the sword of the executioner, and the palm of the martyr being lowered by an angel on a cloud. It is interesting to note here that the angel is precariously lowering the palm, the symbol of a martyr, on a cloud due to the fact that the angel cannot yet fly.
Around the executioner and St. Matthew chaos is ensuing among those in the presence of this murder. These people, with terrorized expressions, are fleeing the scene. The light falls on random parts of these people, for instance part of a hand, adding confusion to the piece and emotionally drawing the viewer into the subject matter. This helps to frame the focus on the murder. The murder is further framed by the use of half nudes in the bottom corners. It has been suggested that these were men about to be baptized by St. Matthew, before his murder, and that, if the painting were to be extended below, there a pool of water present. In the back of the painting, there are modern figures dressed in contemporary clothing as well as a self-portrait of Caravaggio. The modern figures serve to remind the viewer to remember the sacrifices made by those in the past, and that they should continue to observe these sacrifices in the present.
The man in the back can be identified as the self-portrait of Caravaggio by other self-portraits as well as the dark hair, big nostrils, and arching thick eyebrows. Although the exact reason Caravaggio placed himself in this work is unknown, it has been remarked that he is King Herticus in the painting, and thus marking the beginning of his fatalistic and tragic portrayal of his own self image. The placement of a self-portrait in this painting could also be taken from the Renaissance artists, for whom it was common to paint their self-portrait in their paintings as their signature. This could be the influence of Raphael, who did practice this type of signature in his paintings. Since the x-rays taken from the first attempt of this painting shows that Caravaggio must have studied some of Raphael’s work due to the similar technique used, it is very likely that Caravaggio copied this device.


Caravaggio painted a first version of The Conversion of St. Paul, but, for reasons that remain unclear, he painted also second version of it. The first version of this piece is not only in an extremely different style, but the portrayal of the subject and figures in the piece are completely different in the two versions. In the second version, the one that now hangs in the Cesari Chapel, the subject is of St. Paul as he is receiving the light of God after being thrown off his horse. The figures in this painting are kept to a minimum. Only St. Paul, his horse, and the groom of the horse are present. This is meant to keep the focus on St. Paul, as well as to convey the extremely personal and intimate moment that St. Paul is experiencing. His arms are stretched upwards, receiving the light of God, in a position of helplessness on his back. This pose is reminiscent of the pose of St. Matthew in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Also, as is characteristic of Caravaggio’s paintings, the background is very dark despite the fact that the scene is recorded as taking place mid-day. The only source of light is that from God. For the first time in the depiction of this scene, Caravaggio paints the light of God with no figural personification. This helps to give the painting a sense of divinity and heightens the highlighting of the ecstasy exhibited by St. Paul.
Caravaggio has chosen to show the scene without any action. The horse above him is calm, showing very little movement. In fact, this painting has almost no movement at all. The only other movement besides the movement shown by the horse is the up-stretched arms of St. Paul. The use of the horse in this painting could be a device used by Renaissance artists to help fill up the space in the painting as well as frame the main focus of the painting. The enormous rump of the horse helps to lead the viewer down onto the figure of St. Paul.
The expression on St. Paul’s face is one of both ecstasy and divine acceptance. His eyes are closed, signifying both the physical blindness he will experience for the next three days, as well as his previous spiritual blindness to the enlightened of God. The figure of St. Paul is also that of a young man with no distinguishing features. He was a great sinner, he persecuted the Christians, yet by the mercy and power of God, he has been chosen and converted to the path of enlightenment. This gives hope to even the greatest sinner that he too can be forgiven by God if he leaves his sinning for the path of enlightenment. On the edges of the light that is shining down on St. Paul, Caravaggio painted little white dots on the edges so that they will sparkle in the presence of real light, heightening the divinity of the light and creating a more emotional response from the viewer. The enlightened of St. Paul is juxtaposed with the figure of the groom. Although this figure does have a small amount of light on him, it is clear from his stance and position in that painting that although he is lighted, he is not enlightened. The purpose of this painting is to show through the divine intervention of God on the sinner Saul, anyone can be saved and enlightened through the His divine will.


In contrast to the inaction of The Conversion of St. Paul, The Crucifixion of St. Peter is shown in the middle of movement. Following the example of Michelangelo, Caravaggio depicts this scene as the cross is being raised. He paid special attention to the way in which he portrays this movement, attempting to make it look realistic. It is possible that he used models in order to do this, which is can be seen by the straining muscles of the men lifting the cross. For example, one of the worker’s bulging veins and the redness of his hand is depicted as a direct result of raising the cross. Another executioner exhibits a bulge of flesh where his jacket cuts his waist as he pulls the rope.
As is typical in Caravaggio paintings, the background is dark, with a source of light falling on the main subject, which is St. Peter. The executioners around him are not lit at all. Instead they serve as an unattached physical mechanism raising the cross and pushing St. Peter closer to his death. They also help to frame the painting, drawing the viewer’s attention to the figure of St. Peter. The large rear end and dirty bare feet of the executioner on the left help to draw in the attention of the viewer, since the Cerasi Chapel is dark, and once the viewer is close to the painting, draw his attention to St. Peter.
The figure of St. Peter is made more dramatic by the light shining down on him. He is being crucified upside down (he claims he is not honorable enough to die in the same way as Christ), yet shows extreme calmness and serenity. He looks down, toward the altar of the chapel. St. Peter himself is portrayed with monumental massiveness, even for his old age. He is accepting of his death, and the scene, without an audience, releases an intimate vibe, appealing to emotions of the viewer and inviting them to participate in the extreme faith in the salvation of God shown by St. Peter. The main theme of this painting is faith, which can also be seen by the symbolism of the rock placed under St. Peter, signifying St. Peter as the rock of faith with which the church was founded.
Caravaggio also used an illusionism in this painting. Although it looks as though St. Peter is being crucified on an upside-down cross, he is actually only attached to one board. There is no cross beam. Instead, his left arm is stretched along the same board as his body.

III. Function


The paintings in the Contarelli Chapel were meant to continue the honoring of Cardinal Contarelli’s patron saint, St. Matthew, and to allow the general public to see the highlights of the Saint’s life and death. In painting the scenes of the calling, martyrdom and inspiration for the gospel of St. Matthew, Caravaggio did much more than just simply portray St. Matthew in an honorable fashion. He brought the sacred scene into the space of the viewer, helping them to identify with the scene taking place. His voluminous figures and often architectural positioning caused the viewer to feel as though the figures were coming out of the painting. This is most notably seen with St. Matthew and the Angel, in which the bench St. Matthew sits on is tilting off of the edge of the painting into the viewer’s space. The dark atmosphere of all of the paintings, along with the highlight of the figures from a light source outside of the painting, creates a highly dramatized effect. This contributes to the emotional response felt by the viewer. In The Calling of St. Matthew, the painting was meant to portray the salvation of St. Matthew from his life as the tax collector. Although his life started out in sin, once he followed Christ, he was saved. This conveys a message of hope for the sinful viewer as well as the forgiving nature of God. In The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the viewer is reminded of the sacrifices that were made by St. Matthew in the name of Christ. The men on the left-hand side in modern dress among those who witnessed St. Matthew’s martyrdom represents the need for those in the present to recognize and remember the sacrifices made by those in the past. In St. Matthew and the Angel, the divine inspiration of God is portrayed. With St. Matthew in a moment of sudden inspiration with the angel, the divinity and power of God is seen as he writes one of his most important accomplishments of his life, his part of the Gospel. Along with the different messages conveyed by each painting, the viewer was meant to feel a deep religious response as they interpret the scene in all its realism and darkness. The final effect was that of the common person experiencing the divinity of God through the medium of painting as a way to make the supernatural tangible.


The same is true for the Cerasi Chapel. Although the patron had to approve of the design of the paintings, there was no other intended viewer of the scenes except for the public. In these paintings, The Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, the minimal amount of figures in addition to the saint were meant to signify the deeply personal experience felt by the saint. There is no audience shown, just the saints in their state of divinity. In the Conversion of St. Paul, the inaction of the picture magnifies the experience of St. Paul as the light floods over his body. His outstretched arms signify his acceptance of his salvation. Here the viewer also sees the horse, who takes up a large part of the composition. First the viewer’s eyes are drawn to its enormous rear, and then following the outstretched arms, to the figure of St. Paul on his back with his eyes closed in ecstasy. The horse also looks fairly calm, as if it is was not the horse that threw St. Paul to the God, but instead it was through the power of God that St. Paul is now helplessly laying the ground. The message conveyed here is the power of God, as well as the arbitrary nature in which God chooses Saul to become St. Paul. The viewer notices that St. Paul is conveyed here as a young man, who has no distinguishable features of a saint. He also was a Roman soldier persecuting the Christians before his conversion. Together, these facts give hope to the viewer for their own salvation. If God can forgive someone who was killing his followers and looks like a common youth, than he can also forgive the sins of the viewer who most likely is someone from the general public stopping at the church.
On the opposite side, the viewer sees a scene in action and movement. From a distance, the viewer is drawn to the dark painting, and first comes upon the large rear end of an executioner with very dirty feet. At first this seems like a joke, until the viewer is led from the executioner to the main focus of the painting, which is St. Peter’s crucifixion. In The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the main message conveyed to the viewer is faith. Not only is there a rock placed boldly in the front plane of the painting signifying St. Peter as the rock of faith with which the Catholic Church was founded, but St. Peter himself is looking toward the altar. Even in the moments before his death by crucifixion, he still is showing faith to God. All the figures around him are very mechanical, and uninvolved in the emotional part of the painting. This is a very intimate scene showing St. Peter’s faith in his last moments before death. As in the other paintings by Caravaggio, the background and atmosphere are dark, except for a light from an unknown source highlighting St. Peter on the cross. This draws the viewer’s attention to the act of raising the cross, and then to St. Peter and his calm and serene demeanor as this brutal crucifixion is occurring. Again, this calm expression in the face of death further emphasizes St. Peter’s faith, exemplifying to the general public what is true faith.

IV. Patron

For these particular works, Caravaggio had significant freedom in how to paint each individual picture. At the time of his first public commissions, The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the original patron for these pieces had died thirty years earlier. Although Contarelli did leave outlines for the paintings, Caravaggio only loosely followed them. He only really followed the guideline for the subject of the painting, for it was the wish of Contarelli to have scenes of his patron saint in his chapel, and the general situation of the moment portrayed.
For St. Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio was commissioned by the priests of San Luigi dei Francesi. His first portrayal of this piece was rejected. To the priests, the painting failed to show St. Matthew as dignified. They felt he was shown as common and illiterate, with the angel basically writing the Gospel instead of the angel purely inspiring St. Matthew. This portrayal was considered unbefitting for the saint, and Caravaggio was forced to paint another version of St. Matthew and the Angel. In this new portrayal, he represents the Saint with the dignity required by the church, showing St. Matthew more in a moment of inspiration from the angel.

Although the patron was alive for his second public commissions, Cesari had little stipulations for Caravaggio’s paintings for his chapel. His only requirement was for Caravaggio to show him a drawing of the scene before he painted it. However, it is interesting to note that Caravaggio painted both of these scenes, The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and later completely started over. It is unknown whether these were rejected by Cerasi or if Caravaggio simply decided to repaint them after seeing Annibale Caracci’s Assumption as the altarpiece.
In all of his paintings, the present movement towards naturalism can be seen. Caravaggio paints his figures realistically, leaving out any idealization of the Renaissance. This caused much controversy and debate, as well as induced a plethora of criticism from the classicalists. They called Caravaggio unimaginative, stating that he only knew how to copy from nature. They also criticized his use of dark atmosphere/background, stating that he used this device to hide his inability to paint due to his lack in classical training. Although these criticisms were prevalent at the time, many more people of the time found his style to be unique and innovative, spreading his style throughout Western Europe as well as in Italy both during his life and after his death.

During Caravaggio’s youth, and during his first couple years in Rome, Filippo Neri was very popular all over Rome. His humble, mystic and simplistic view of the relationship between God and the worshiper appealed to all classes in society. He was later sainted after his death, and possibly had influence over Caravaggio. This influence can be seen with the simplicity shown in Caravaggio’s paintings as well as the directness of the subject matter. Along with the ideas of St. Filippo, the ideas of St. Ignatius also could have influenced the way that Caravaggio portrayed his religious scenes. The ideas of St. Ignatius, written in Exercita Spiritualia, encouraged the supernatural to be made tangible to the senses. In Caravaggio’s works, this can be seen through the appeal of the divine to both the intelligence and the spirituality of the viewer, helping the viewer to understand the painting on a deeper more religious level than with previous styles.

V. Conclusion

Caravaggio’s revolutionary technique and subject matter influence painters both within Italy and abroad, especially in Western Europe. He left in his wake a school of painters, these artists called Caraggeschi, who tried to imitate his tenebrism, chiascuro and realism, a style later known as Caravaggismo. Not only did they emulate his style, but also started painting the same type of low-life genre scenes as Caravaggio. Most notably he influenced the works of Velazquez, Guercino, and Georges de la Tour to name just a few.

Although these painters were able to imitate his style, they did not master Caravaggio’s emotion or the religious psychology found in his paintings. These elements are what separate Caravaggio from his followers and provoke the interest of viewers today. His unique interpretation of religious scenes, combined with the sharp light penetrating a dark atmosphere and realism found in the paintings of the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel compel the viewers to closely examine his work as well as experience the scene taking place. There is a mysterious mysticism that one can almost physically grasp, appealing to the emotion, senses and intellect of viewer, sparking interest in both Caravaggio and all his work.

VI. Personal Observations

I was surprised to find that in both the Contarelli Chapel and the Cerasi Chapel that many of the first versions of Caravaggio's paintings were rejected. It shocked me that a painting by a master such as Caravaggio would be rejected, especially when he was continually commissioned, even throughout his exile from Rome.

The most intriguing part of my research consisted of the comparison between the two St. Matthew and the Angel paintings. I personally found the first painting to be more appealing and emotional, and was thus very interested in the reasons for its dismissal. It seems strange that the priests rejected it due to the indecorous figure of St. Matthew, seemingly represented as low class and illiterate. To me, the figure of St. Matthew seemed wise with age, and his pose was neutral. I was not offended by it at all. It was also very interesting to compare it to the painting that was accepted, especially to compare the different representation of St. Matthew as well as a completely different composition. In the first St. Matthew, there is debate on whether the figure, considered to be a socratic figure, is that of St. Filippo. This is due to St. Filippo's image as the Christian Socrates, as well as the extremely different portrayal of St. Matthew in Caravaggio's other two paintings on the lateral walls. The figures of St. Matthew in these two paintings are similar to each other. In the final version of this piece, Caravaggio goes back to this representation, making St. Matthew look similar to the other two paintings.

VII. Bibliography

Beguin, Sylvie, et al. Dictionary of Italian Painting. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1964.

Beny, Roloff and Gunn, Peter. The Churches of Rome. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1981.

Bersani, Leo and Dutoit, Ulysse. Caravaggio’s Secrets. Cambridge: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.

Friedlaender, Walter. Caravaggio Studies. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Hibbard, Howard. Caravaggio. New York: 1983.

Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Tennessee: Kingport Press, Inc., 1986.

Macdonald, William. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. New York: George Braziller, 1965.

Puglisi, Catherine. Caravaggio. Hong Kong: Plaidon Press Limited, 1998.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Prentice Hall, Inc., 2002.

Voss, Hermann. Baroque Painting in Rome. San Francisco:
Alan Worsy Fine Arts, 1997.

Waterhouse, Ellis. Italian Baroque Painting. London:
Phaidon Press, 1962.



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