Thursday, October 13, 2005


Angela Kim
Honors in Rome - Summer 2005

I. Introduction

Michelangelo Merisi was born in 1571 in Milan. His predicted birthday is September 29th, it being St. Archangel’s Day, for Michael. Caravaggio, the name he later goes by, is a town 43km east of Milan. The plague of 1576/1577 forced Michelangelo’s family to move to Caravaggio for safety. Unfortunately, the disease had already been exposed and Caravaggio’s father and grandparents passed away. Yet even with these events, it is likely that Caravaggio had a fairly comfortable childhood and some schooling. His father had owned property, and there is evidence of his literacy through books Caravaggio later owned, signature on receipts, and verses. This is particularly important because there has been claim to Carvaggio’s illiteracy.

In 1584 Caravaggio returns to Milan to apprentice himself to Simoe Peterzano for four years. Here he is influenced by Lombardy art (the region) which consists of realistic styles and begins to explore and paint still life’s.

Caravaggio returns to his town after the apprenticeship. In 1590 his mother dies and Caravaggio sells his father’s property and departs for Rome where his brother and uncle live as priests. His relationship with his brother must have been delicate, for they did not have much contact but it was his uncle who set Caravaggio up with his first artists’ contacts and jobs. Though none of these jobs in the beginning were very promising; Caravaggio rarely stayed with one for a long period of time, had no fixed residence and often worked for artists of “lesser talent.” During this time, Caravaggio probably had run out of the money that he had made by selling his father’s land, and was living poorly. But Rome was small at the time, the population being around 109,000 and Caravaggio soon met the people that would help him. He eventually worked for artists Giueppe Cesari d’Arpino, and soon after Caravaggio’s work was brought to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte who provided Caravaggio with board, lodging, and pension. Del Monte was a man of great influence and became the link to Caravaggio’s future public commissions.

II. Description

Contarelli Chapel

French Cardinal Mathieu Cointrel/Matteo Contarelli had left money in his will for the decoration of the chapel in the French national church, the San Luigi dei Francesi. There had been strict guidelines set up for the chapel, that was supposed to represent the life of St. Matthew, who had been Cardinal Contarelli’s patron saint. The vaults had been decorated by frescos by Cesari d’Arpino, but the side walls weren’t painted. The process of this chapel had been heavily delayed and the responsibility was being passed on from person to person. Contarelli had died in 1587 leaving the chapel’s completion to the responsibility of the Crescenzi family. After years of inactivity, the priests appealed to the Fabbrica di San Pietro for its completions, the priests also reported that the Crescenzi family had been using the money for its own interest. There was a recommendation for intervention and Del Monte suggested Caravaggio. In 1599 Caravaggio obtained his first public (and visually the largest) commission.

The Calling of Saint Matthew:

Caravaggio may have been familiar with earlier Netherlandish paintings of money lenders and gamblers. This scene is represented as nearly a silent, dramatic narrative. Levi, the tax-gather is seated counting his earnings for the day with his workers or friends. Jesus is the light that enters. He enters with an artificially/supernatural light that does that come through the window. The clothes of Jesus and peter are entirely different from Matthew and his friends. Matthew is dressed in modern clothes, as Jesus and Peter are in cloaks. This shows the separation of the two worlds. Jesus’ feet are already turned from his body as if he has entered but is ready to leave with Matthew. Matthew looks up surprised, with an expression that reads ‘who me?’ There are those who do look up at this light, and there are others who do not look up. This is a clear indication of those who will be saved and those who will not be saved. “The Calling,” is interesting because it depicts a scene of a man who is in between lives.

Matthew’s hand represents this perfectly. His left hand is on a pile of money, as his right hand is pointing to his heart asking the question that Jesus is asking. It is the gold versus the finger. Matthew must choose, and this painting captures this moment of inaction that is full of psychological activity. With his left hand there is an old man inspecting the money with this glasses, displaying his full concentration of worldly goods, and the young man sitting next to him who joins him in this activity. On his right side, there are two young boys who have looked up with Matthew. X-rays show that Peter’s character was added later next to Jesus. But he does not cast a shadow on the young boy sitting in front of him, emphasizing Jesus’s supernatural light. There are multiple interpretations to the added placement of Peter and his significance. The most interesting one is the hand placement of both Peter and Jesus. Caravaggio would have been familiar with Michelangelo’s ceiling, and the scene of God and Adam. Jesus’s hand is like that of Adam’s, and Peter is like that of God’s. This might be to represent the humanness of Jesus at the time, and Peter as a symbol of the Church and its divine authority. It is a frozen moment, but filled with drama. The message is simple: Christians behave like Matthew and accept Christ, to leave the worldly goods and to live a life in poverty and piety.

The Inspiration of St. Matthew

The painting on display at the Chapel is the second version of this painting. The first one was rejected for the portrayal of Matthew with dirty feet (dirty feet is a big theme with Caravaggio), and as portraying a Saint as illiterate. The second one is not as risky, and like “The Calling,” places Matthew in a suspended moment. Matching time, he is older than he was in “The Calling,” but this time dressed in the cloak and not modern clothing. He is more like an ancient philosopher and Saint rather than a man. Matthew is in an unsettled pose, with one foot up in the air and his stool

tipping. The Angel is in front of him and above him, counting the things that
Matthew must remember for the gospel. Spatially it
is out of time and place, this is emphasized with the dark background. The placement of this painting is central in location and meaning. Matthew’s man comes from ‘manus’ that means hand, and ‘theos’ that translates to God. Matthew is the hand of God, writing down the text with the help of an angel. It represents the divine nature of the text and emphasizes the divinity and authority of the Gospel.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

The story of Matthew’s martyrdom happens in Ethiopia. Matthew forbade the King of Ethiopia’s marriage and seduction of his niece Ighegia, who was living in a convent and a virgin. This angered the King, and he ordered for Matthew’s death. Matthew had been a priest in Ethiopia at the time, and was killed at the altar.

This painting is different from the “The Calling,” and “The Inspiration,” in many ways, yet remains true to the mystery and suspense. It is full of action and movement, and the space is filled . The main figure in this painting is the executioner and not the martyr. It is depicting a murder’s moment, but nonetheless draws out the audience to Matthew.

There are men who are partially nude that wait for baptism. These men move out of fear and revelation. Matthew is down, his body close to the audience, his hand reaching out. The placement of hands are important once again. Matthew’s left hand is out towards to the viewer, it is left empty. Matthew’s right hand is being grabbed by the murder with a sword, at the same time an angel is reaching for Matthew with a palm branch. The angel is on a cloud, indicting that the angel cannot yet fly. Yet behind the angel is a single candle at the altar that shines through this event. This may represent the knowing eyes of God, who is watching it all. Here in the background Caravaggio leaves his signature, his portrait at the very back, almost looking over the shoulders of the murder. His expression is heavily debated. Is he concerned, is he partaking in this violence, which character is he to represent? There is a mixture of sympathy and ambivalence to his expression.

Cerasi Chapel:

In 1600 there was a 2nd commission for Caravaggio from Tiberio Cerasi. Cerasi was born in 1544 and practiced law in the papal court. Eventually, he collected enough wealth to buy the post of Treasurer General to the Apostolic Chamber, which put him in charge of papal expenditure. This diversified his connections and contacts, and within these connections he met Marchese Vincenzio Giustiniani who recommended Caravaggio to Cerasi for his chapel. Caravaggio was contracted on September 24, 1600 to paint two cypress panels. Caracci had already done the altar, so Caravaggio was assigned to paint the two walls on the sides.

The Crucifixion of Peter

When Peter was crucified, he asked to be turned upside down to be the opposite of Jesus’ crucifixion. Peter’s crucifixion happened during Nero persecution of Christians. Peter is unlike a usual representation of saint in this painting. He is an old man, somewhat helpless and fragile. He is accepting of his martyrdom. This inaction compared to the straining of all the other characters, one who is pulling the cross, one, holding, one pushing, all who are straining physically to lift Peter. This painting captures an excited action, the raising of the cross. No one faces the viewer but Peter, no one else is lit. Everything and everyone else remains dark but him. The man who is pushing up the cross has dirty feet, and Peter’s feet are in clear view as well. Caravaggio utilizes all the space in this painting, all the spaces are filled, there are few empty spots. Details do not clutter this painting, rather the theme of this painting is clear: faith. The faith of Peter, and the foundation he is for the church, represented by the rock that is on the floor.

The Conversion of Saint Paul

The conversion of Saul is a story of a man who is met with the divine will of God as he is on his way to persecuting the Christians. The story happens at midday, which is different from the painting where the background is dark. But there is a supernatural light that is shining on Paul. His body is on the floor, and it is closest to the audience, the viewer is head to head with Paul. Paul is leveled with the viewer, placing the viewer in his place. This is once again a significant moment of inaction, where the interest lies in the psychological core of these moments, rather than the physical moments. Paul can see something that no one else can, this is his epiphany. The painting represents a divine moment but like Caravaggio’s other paintings, it includes a touch of ‘dirty feet,’ or rather, the horses’s rear. At the time the painting was first shown, the horse was critized as being too commonly, and the painting boring. “The Conversion,” is another painting that Caravaggio did twice. The one before was full of action, a fallen Paul, a moving horse. This one depicts a deep spiritual moment of light, salvation, repentance and Paul, reaching up.

III. Function

Caravaggio painted “The Calling of St. Matthew,” “The Inspiration of St. Matthew,” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.” These were Caravaggio’s first encounter with paintings so large. X-rays show several changes that he made throughout his commission. Yet Caravaggio must have studied paintings in other churches, and contemplated the kind lighting these paintings would be viewed in. The lighting in the paintings are complementary to each other, coming from the same natural source. The effect that the natural lighting and candle light would have produced is much different from the experience the viewer sees today. The three paintings read logically, from left, center and right, like a printed line of the events of St. Matthew’s life. They are open to the viewer. The hand placements, the spacing, the light are directed in a way so that the viewer has an intimate experience with the paintings and the chapel. The paintings were to honor Contarelli’s patron Saint, but goes beyond the specific life of the saint, and into realms and spaces that the viewer can be placed in—to choose a world between God and material goods, and to trust. The paintings in the Cerasi chapel work in similar ways. They are scenes suspended from time, of inspiration and divinity. But the viewer is placed into the scenes by the body placement and realistic portrayal. These messages aren’t necessarily ones by the patron or the church to the people, but rather of the popular spiritual beliefs of the time, and of Caravaggio’s.

IV. Patron

Before going into the intentions of the patron, I think it is important to address the potential intentions of the artist.

Caravaggio’s Religion:

An important element in Caravaggio’s life and art is his religious and personal beliefs. During his early youth in Milan, Caravaggio must have been exposed to the groups that held concern and social interests for the poor world, and the rejected. Also, when arriving to Rome, Caravaggio must have encountered the popular theories of Saint Fillipo Neri’s. Saint Fillipo Neri was renown for his humbleness, for his heart towards the poor and youth. He was unlike the burcrats that represented the church at the time. Caravaggio may have encountered Neri, either at a hospital he was taken to when he fell in in his early days in Rome, or at Neri’s church. Neri kept his door open to the youth, and received many visitors. It is not unlikely that the two crossed paths. With this it is important to note that Caravaggio was with the people of his time, and not removed.

Also, Caravaggio had an early encounter with mortality and plague. Eventually orphaned, and the threat to his life later on, Caravaggio possibly struggled and developed a keen awareness for the world. His earlier years in Rome, strung with poverty, unstableness and fights and arrests would make him no stranger to the world and colors he depicted.

This would lead to a direct and honest expression of religion and its characters. There is a social and human conscious to his paintings, full of sympathy, yet beauty of the real rather than the embellished. His paintings are directed to the audience, and are open to individual interpretation for the individual to ‘grasp them in terms of one’s own life,’ and the realism in Caravaggio’s paintings would make it possible for viewers to relate.

His paintings were often accused of lacking decorum due to capturing dirty feet, back angles, and more humanly characteristics of saints. But Caravaggio painted life, and in it’s reality wanted to show its beauty.


Somewhat fortunately for Caravaggio, his first public commission had no direct contact with the patron. As mentioned before, Contarelli had died before the completion of his chapel, and left the chapel in supervision for another family to complete. By the time Caravaggio received the commission, he was working with the Church overseeing the commission, rather than the patron. The patron had set guidelines for the paintings, which were supposed to be the life of his patron saint, St. Matthew. But other than that, and no longer being alive, he could not submit direct control over Caravaggio’s work. Instead, the church played that role.

For an example, the Inspiration of St. Matthew had to be repainted because a priest was horrified at the idea of standing below St. Matthew’s dirty feet, and illiterate gesture. This realistic nature in Caravaggio was heavily criticized, for humanizing and humbling the saints and other important figures. Such images were believed to be ‘lacking decorum.’ This can be an indication of a direct clash between Caravaggio’s beliefs and representation, and the Church’s control. As noted with Peter’s later addition in the Calling of St. Matthew, this can be presumed to an influence by the church and its message of its importance. Caravaggio painting solely Jesus and Matthew signifies a relationship of man and God without interference. This was probably not a message the church wanted to project.

It is hard to say what Contarelli would have done differently. He did have guidelines, but ones that were loose enough for Caravaggio to work with. Caravaggio placed the paintings in certain lightings and certain spaces (suspended, timeless) so that people could enter into the painting, and interact intimately with them. This was probably not the instruction of the patron or the church.

This is similarly true for the Cerasi Chapel. However, the patron was alive. But both chapel’s main audience was the public audience. The paintings in the Cerasi chapels had to be pre-submitted, and both paintings were repainted. The reasons remain unclear, whether the patron rejected them or if Caravaggio wanted to repaint them. But the inaction of the paintings, the humility of Peter, and the dirty feet are signals that Caravaggio was given a certain amount of freedom and flexibility outside of his patron’s guidelines.

V. Conclusion

Throughout his career, and perhaps even before that, Caravaggio had frequent encounters with the law. In fact, what historians know about him today is largely due to his police files. He did not have any students and did not write many letters. He was arrested several times, for assaults, fights, throwing a plate of artichokes, throwing stones, among some. He was known to dress in all black, and would wander the streets carrying a big sword with friends who behaved similarly to him. His mischiefs turned serious in 1606, when Caravaggio killed a man in an argument over a tennis match. He quickly fled to Naples, Malta, Sicily, painting and becoming loved then hated and fleeing again. He wanted to return to Rome, but he was sentenced to death and was requesting a pardon from the Pope. His friends and patrons must’ve been working on the pardon, for he received it in 1610. Ironically, it was granted about 3 days before he died. On his way back to Rome, he was mistakenly taken by Spanish soldiers, jailed and when he was freed the ship with all of his belongings had taken off. Desperate and sick Caravaggio died on the beach at the age of 39.

Caravaggio was heavily imitated during his time and after his death. These imitators were known as Caravaggisti. Some painters that were influence by him are Rembrandt and Velazquez. Caravaggio invented Chiascuro, which is contrasting dark and light in paintings, creating spatial depth and forms through the intensity of light and shadow, along with tenebrism which describes a strong uses of chiascuro and artificially illuminated areas to create dramatic contrasts of light and dark. This technique wasn’t the only thing that made Caravaggio a unique and brilliant painter. He was imitated by others with his technique and strong realism, but in his psychological and religious depth.

VI. Personal Observations

There is quote from the novel M by Peter Robb that pulls together my fascination for Caravaggio. “There’s a man called M who’s doing wonderful things in Rome… he’s already famous… he’s got no respect for the work of any master, not that he openly praises his own… says everything’s triviality and child’s play, whatever it’s of and whoever painted it, if it hasn’t been done from life (Robb, 8).” When researching Caravaggio, I came in with very little knowledge of ‘new realism,’ and its intent. I was fascinated with Caravaggio’s fascination to further explore realism, and life and then to present it without any embellishment. Caravaggio’s dedication to the inaction, to the psychological moments fascinated me. He was taking from life, just as he had promised, and proved to be a painter of more than technical talent, but one of life, and connected not with the rich of his time, but the people of his time.

VII. Bibliography

Friedlander, Walter, “Caravaggio’s Character and Religion”, chapter 6 in Caravaggio Studies. New York, 1955.

Hibbard, Howard, “The Contarelli Chapel”, chapter 3 in Caravaggio, New York, 1983.

Hibbard, Howard, “The Cerasi Chapel”, chapter 4 in Caravaggio, New York, 1983.

Puglisi, Catherine, Caravaggio, London, 1998

Robb, Peter, M: the man who became Caravaggio, New York, 2000.

Calvesi, Maurizio, Caravaggio, Italy, 1998.

Langdon, Helen, Caravaggio: A life, London, 1998.

Moir, Aldred, Caravaggio, New York, 1982.