Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New naturalism and intent: Caravaggio’s public commissions at the Contarelli and Cerasi Chapels

Kimberly Cheong
Honors in Rome - Winter 2007

Introduction & Background
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a revolutionary painter whose tumultuous life, extraordinary talent, and compelling masterpieces still captivate people today. He was born on September 29, 1571, in Milan to Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori. At the age of twelve, Caravaggio was apprenticed to a painter by the name of Simone Peterzano for four years. In the year 1592, after having lost both his parents, Caravaggio arrived in Rome and struggled as an artist for the next three years. He relocated often from various households and studios, one of which belonged to the famous painter Giuseppe Cesari, otherwise known as Cavalier d’Arpino. During this early period in his career, Caravaggio painted mostly still-life and genre paintings depicting themes such as fortune telling or card playing that would later become extremely popular and inspire many copies.

One of his genre paintings attracted the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria Bourbon del Monte, who invited Caravaggio into his household around 1595. At the time, Venice-born Cardinal del Monte was a wealthy, highly influential figure in Rome who held official positions in prestigious institutions such as the Academy of Saint Luke and the Fabbrica di San Pietro. He was known as a “lover of pleasures and leisure” with a wide range of interests, from music and the arts to the natural sciences (Puglisi 86). Cardinal del Monte conducted medicinal and alchemical experiments in his own laboratory and was an early supporter of Galileo. Through Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio met important figures such as Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, a neighbor and friend of del Monte who purchased many Caravaggio canvases. Through his powerful patrons, Caravaggio enjoyed legal protection when the police caught up to his unruly escapades; he was known as a brash man who was easily aggravated and constantly engaged in disputes. This ultimately led to his famous crime of murder, the consequences of which even his patrons could not protect him against. Caravaggio subsequently fled southward from Rome in 1606.
Caravaggio’s stay in Rome virtually coincided with the papacy of Clement VIII, which lasted from 1592 to 1605. This period was characterized by the construction and renovation of new palaces and church buildings, especially in preparation for the Jubilee year of 1600. Clement VIII expected more than half a million pilgrims to visit Rome, and he wished for them to view the city as a splendid, impressive capital. The pope was lavish in his preparations, but he was also morally stringent. He was strict regarding decorations in churches, and had paintings or sculptures that he deemed inappropriate removed.

The first public commission Caravaggio received was for two lateral wall paintings in the Contarelli Chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. San Luigi dei Francesi was dedicated to Saint Louis, the Crusader King of France, and it was considered the official French church in Rome for French diplomats, clerics, nationals, and pilgrims (Hunt 68). The Contarelli Chapel paintings were commissioned through the rich estate of Matteo Contarelli, a French cardinal, after his death in 1585. They were to depict scenes from the life of St. Matthew, Contarelli’s namesake. However, the chapel remained unfinished until the priests of San Luigi dei Francesi petitioned the Fabbrica di San Pietro to undertake the task of completing the chapel decorations. Through the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, Caravaggio signed the contract to paint The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew on July 23, 1599. They were completed and unveiled in July 1600 (Hibbard 93).
Caravaggio’s next public commission was again for two lateral wall paintings, this time for the Cerasi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi was a former papal lawyer who began an ecclesiastical career when he was around fifty years old. In 1556, his affluence afforded him the powerful position of Treasurer General to the Apostolic Chamber. Presumably, Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, the Depositary General to the Apostolic Chamber as well as banker in Cerasi’s contract with Caravaggio, exerted his influence on behalf of Caravaggio for the prestigious commission (Puglisi 145). On September 24, 1600, a new contract commissioned Caravaggio for the Cerasi Chapel, stipulating two paintings to be finished in eight months. The document also named Caravaggio Egregius in Urbe Pictor or “Distinguished City Painter of Rome” for the first time (Hunt 74).

Meanwhile, the original marble sculpture altarpiece created for the Contarelli Chapel by a sculptor named Jacob Cobaert was rejected by the priests of San Luigi. On February 7, 1602, Caravaggio signed a contract to paint the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. The subject was to be “Matthew writing his gospel with an angel at the right in the act of dictating to him” (Hibbard 138). Caravaggio’s first attempt, St. Matthew and the Angel, was rejected by the San Luigi rectors. Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani stepped in to pacify a distraught Caravaggio by purchasing the original and setting up arrangements for a new painting. The Inspiration of St. Matthew was completed in February 1603 and, with the approval of the San Luigi clergy, installed as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel, where it can still be viewed today.

The Contarelli Chapel
The Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi is dimly lit; one can only see the Caravaggio paintings clearly after feeding the coin box at the right of the chapel. The neglected, faded ceiling frescoes depicting four now-unidentifiable prophets and St. Matthew healing a sick person are by Giuseppe Cesari. The Calling of St. Matthew is on the left wall of the chapel, The Inspiration of St. Matthew is the central altarpiece, and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew is installed on the right lateral wall. Caravaggio’s first public commissions called for the largest canvases that he had ever worked with, and he must have felt enormous pressure to please the patrons and the public.

In The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio hearkens back to his earlier genre paintings and utilizes his previously successful formula of several figures in an obscure setting. This painting captures a pivotal moment in time. Matthew, a tax collector before his conversion, is sitting at the table with his four assistants after a long day’s work. They are busily counting the day’s proceeds when Christ and Peter, in classical dress, suddenly enter the scene. Christ’s outstretched arm is raised toward Matthew, who has lifted his head, perhaps surprised by the interruption. Matthew is caught in the instant of conversion, at the boundary between the worldly and the holy. He looks directly at Christ and points to himself in a “Who, me?” gesture while his other hand is still fingering the coins on the table. Additionally, there is a coin perched in his black hat. The light from the top right corner illuminates Matthew’s bearded face in a straight line, and also coincides with the direction from which Jesus enters the room.

There has been recent speculation that the usual identification of Matthew as the bearded man is incorrect. Angela Hass argues that the youth at the end of the table with his head bent downward is the actual St. Matthew. Although Matthew was often depicted as a bearded man, there have been precedents for clean-shaven Matthews, most notably in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (Hass 247). Furthermore, Caravaggio’s young man is clutching a moneybag in his left hand – a common trait of Matthew in paintings due to his past as a tax collector. Hass also believes that the bearded man’s uncurled finger is pointing at the young, hunched over man in a “Who, him?” gesture, and that the position of Jesus and Peter on the other side of the painting places them on a straight-line path toward the young Matthew (247, 250).

Although Angela Hass’ arguments are certainly compelling and well-reasoned, the traditional identification of Matthew as the bearded man is more convincing and the most widely accepted viewpoint. Much of Hass’ evidence is circumstantial and for me, the illumination of Matthew’s bearded face, his direct eye contact with Christ, and his central position at the table are strong pieces of evidence for the traditional identification.

On the opposite wall, The Martyrdom of St. Matthew depicts a more terrifying, emotion-filled scene. X-ray photographs reveal the trouble Caravaggio initially encountered while working on this painting. His original approach was more traditional, with a Raphaelesque, balanced arrangement of smaller figures which included women at the lower right corner of the scene (Hibbard 106). Classical columns in the background were visible, and there was a centrally placed figure that would have been seen from behind.

Caravaggio’s final version raises the two main figures of the executioner and St. Matthew to the center of the painting. Other figures, immobilized witnesses to the execution, are placed centrifugally around the two central characters (Hibbard 108). The setting is in a dark church around a baptismal font, and the light source is from the left of the painting, where the window of the Contarelli Chapel is located. The nude body of the executioner suggests that he was in line to be baptized – an idea that augments the alarm and terror of the scene. The scream of the choir boy running away on the right reverberates throughout the painting, and his face clearly shows fear and helplessness. Caravaggio’s own dismayed face, looking back as he runs away, is visible past the executioner’s shoulder. This serves to amplify the viewer’s involvement in the painting; the audience looks upon the same scene just as the artist does from the opposite side. The figure at the bottom right corner with his lower torso cut off by the boundary of the painting also increases the audience’s personal involvement with the piece because of his close proximity to the viewers. Caravaggio’s masterful use of tenebrism, or intense contrasts between light and dark, highlights only certain parts of figures and heightens the commotion in the piece. Yet amid the chaos the viewer’s eyes are carefully guided by the graceful lines made by St. Matthew’s arms and the martyr’s palm frond being offered by the angel on top of the cloud. There is also a “juxtaposition of the saint’s right hand, the executioner’s left hand, and the martyr’s palm over the Maltese cross on the altarpiece” which imparts “a focus for the meaning of the painting” (Moir 74).

The central altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel, The Inspiration of St. Matthew, is a beautiful work that should be analyzed in conjunction with the first rejected painting, St. Matthew and the Angel. Although the initial version was executed according to the description in the contract, Caravaggio’s vernacular rendering of the subject matter offended the clergy of San Luigi dei Francesi. Matthew was portrayed as a lowly, plebeian figure with a tough, weather-beaten appearance. His large legs are exposed above the knee, and his left foot protrudes out clumsily toward the viewer. The angel at his side – a little too close for comfort – is sensuous and erotic, with her leg uncovered and drapery clinging to her body. She is guiding Matthew’s hand as he writes the gospel, which could suggest that he is illiterate and simple-minded. The San Luigi rectors were opposed to this overly realistic depiction of a saint, who was to be revered and honored by the public.

Caravaggio’s second attempt assuages all the objections of the priests. He separates the two figures, and paints the angel flying hierarchically over the saint. The flowing drapery around the male angel covers most of his body and he is charmingly ticking off points on his fingers as he dictates to the saint. Matthew is dressed in a fresh, eye-catching orange robe that covers most of his legs and he holds the pen himself as he writes. His surprise at the angel’s appearance is depicted on his face and also perhaps by the bench tipping precariously over a ledge into the viewer’s space. Matthew is no longer a dumbfounded commoner with large feet; instead, he looks like a distinguished, immaculate old man.

The Cerasi Chapel

The Cerasi Chapel is situated in a prominent place to the left of the main central altar. The dramatic altarpiece is The Assumption of the Virgin by Annibale Carracci, another prominent painter in Rome during Caravaggio’s time. The Assumption of the Virgin is one of Carracci’s most classical works, with massive, idealized figures and cool, clear colors. It is interestingly juxtaposed against Caravaggio’s two darker, naturalistic lateral wall paintings, The Crucifixion of St. Peter on the left and The Conversion of St. Paul on the right.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter is a solemn, contemplative piece depicting the raising of St. Peter’s cross during his crucifixion. The canvas is vertical, with smaller dimensions – aspects which have been taken into consideration by the artist. There are three anonymous executioners straining to lift up the cross; two of them have their heads bent and the third’s face is obscure due to a shadow. The focus of this painting is on St. Peter, whose powerful nude torso is displayed at a diagonal across the center. His head is turned toward the chapel altar, and his face is resolute, pensive, and full of acceptance of his fate. Caravaggio’s emphasis on ordinary details may be seen in the illuminated rear and dirty feet of the executioner at the bottom left. Although the instruments of the crucifixion such as the spade, nails, and the wooden cross are depicted, Caravaggio chooses to forgo portraying pain or bloodshed. Instead, the drama is heightened psychologically as the viewer partakes in Peter’s private physical and spiritual trial. The absence of spectators in the painting “transmutes the crucifixion from an historical event to a personal ordeal” (Moir 84). The absence of a visible background further reinforces this point and makes the scene more relevant to the viewer, since it could be taking place virtually anywhere. Finally, the large rock in the foreground represents St. Peter metaphorically, because Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).

Across the chapel on the right wall is The Conversion of St. Paul. Again, the number of figures has been reduced to a minimum and the background is dark and obscure. The light source enters the painting from the top right corner, and it represents the bright light that blinded Paul for three days from the Biblical account of his conversion. Most of the painting is filled up by a large, realistic horse. Paul’s ungainly steward is not a participant in this miraculous event; he is situated behind the horse, and is for the most part covered by the animal. St. Paul has fallen off the horse onto his back, with his head situated toward the viewer. His helmet has fallen off his head and his cloak is in disarray on the ground. Paul’s eyes are closed, representing his blindness, and he is in a vulnerable supine pose with his chest exposed to the heavens. His arms are stretched out in a parabolic shape that frames the bottom of the painting and assures the audience of Paul’s consciousness and acceptance of Christ. As in The Crucifixion of St. Peter, the story is effectively pared down to its fundamental essence. Although there is not much action going on in the painting, Caravaggio represents this “significant moment of inaction in order to penetrate the psychological core of events” (Moir 86). The deep, earthy, red, green, and brown tones that Caravaggio utilizes also complement The Crucifixion of St. Peter perfectly.

The narrow, tight dimensions of the Cerasi Chapel force visitors to view the lateral wall paintings at sharp angles. However, Caravaggio has taken the chapel setting into account and the final result is highly unified, with his pieces corresponding to the larger external context. The light source for both paintings comes from the oval dome ceiling which features a dove in a heavenly gold background. The gilt stuccowork above the Caravaggio paintings depicts scenes from other events in the lives of Peter and Paul. Furthermore, the two paintings themselves are meant to be viewed from oblique angles. From the spectator’s vantage point, the remoter parts of the saints’ bodies “are so pivoted into the picture space, that their axes become prolongations of our sight lines” (Steinberg 186). Caravaggio has clearly considered the architectural setting carefully and his paintings work in harmony with the chapel space.

Caravaggio’s work was deeply influential to future generations; many artists after him attempted to emulate his style and techniques, although the intensity and psychology in his paintings could not be equaled. He was somehow able to reproduce biblical accounts and stories from the lives of saints in a contemporary (seventeenth century) setting without having the pictures lose their authenticity and power. His naturalistic paintings featuring everyday models were relatable to the viewer but still inspired awe and reverence. Caravaggio is also credited with popularizing tenebrism and his method of manipulating light in order to emphasize certain aspects of the painted narrative was highly effective and original. Followers of his style have even been termed the “Caravaggisti,” and among them are important artists such as Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi.

What interested me most during my research was the fact that there were different interpretations of which figure was supposed to be Matthew in The Calling of St. Matthew. I enjoyed reading Hass’ article, mulling over her arguments, and then formulating my own opinions about which idea was correct. I was also interested in the X-ray photographs of Caravaggio’s paintings that revealed the initial work which he then chose to paint over. They provide a deeper insight into the artistic process by which he worked, and I wonder what the original paintings would have looked like if they had been executed. Finally, I appreciated the lovely poetry that Caravaggio’s person and paintings inspired. The following is a worthy tribute to Caravaggio written after his death by his friend Cavalier Marino:
“Nature, who feared to be surpassed
In every image that you made
Has, Michele, now, in league with Death,
A cruel plot against you laid:
For Death with indignation burned
To know that many as his scythe
Cut down, still more and usurously
Your brush contrived to make alive.”


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STEINBERG, L. (1959). Observations in the Cerasi Chapel. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 41, No. 2, 183-190.