There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.
Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.
Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.
And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.
It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.
It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?
A miraculous moment
As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.
The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.
Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.
Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).
An unusual setting
What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)
But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.
To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.
The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.
This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.
It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.
In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.
A feast of symbols
The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.
In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.
Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)
The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.
Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.
This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.
People often talk about the ‘power of art’ and by that they often mean power as a subjective experience, the power of art to move. Art historians also understand art in terms of the power it imbues — the art adorned on the walls of palaces and even banks is like the purple robe of an emperor: it speaks of money, prestige and even domination. But in those two respects art doesn’t have much “power” at all.
The power in both cases is external (extrinsic) to the art. In the former case it only has power over any given individual and the measure of that subjective power therefore varies from person to person. It’s therefore a power that’s dependent on the baggage that comes with each person. The same goes for art as an “adornment” or “signifier” of power – it is contingent on the prerequisite real-world power with which it has a mutually beneficial relationship.
In both cases, art is not really changing anything. So how could art change the world? Such a power would be intrinsic — or inherent — in the art, not extrinsic or dependent on other kinds of power. When we look at certain dramatic moments in the history of art we very quickly realise that art does have the power to change the world to a greater or lesser extent. That power resides in art’s ability to reframe and refocus. I can explain….
We have lived in a world saturated by visual culture for hundreds of years. For the most part the purpose of that culture, broadly speaking, serves to tell us a story. It’s the story of who we are and what our place is in the world. Most of this culture — 99.9% of it — is anodyne, innocuous and beige, it simply conforms to the story we are led to believe is the right one, it makes us feel secure and safe and sometimes righteous.
Most religious art and the art of the state and advertising is that kind of culture: it reflects a reality that simultaneously makes us sure of our place in the world and conforms to the world view of the powers that be. Occasionally artists kick against conformity and show us a different kind of reality – a reality that makes us uncomfortable, that perhaps shows the world slipping from the grip of the powers that be.
In the Louvre in Paris you’ll find an example of such a work: a work that shocked, aroused debate, that gave the establishment a bloody nose. It’s The Raft of Medusa by Théodore Géricault. To explore the intrinsic power of this monumental painting, it’s first worth examining the story of its genesis: the story of La Méduse.
A Nation with Little Hope
After the defeat of Napoleon and his forced exile in 1814, the revolutionary Republic was destroyed and the Bourbon Dynasty restored. King Louis XVIII took his place on the French throne with the support of the British, who believed he could restore peace in Europe.
Contrary to this expectation, Louis XVIII was briefly deposed again during the “Hundred Days” in 1815, when Napoleon returned from exile to fight again (he was finally defeated by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo). The shock of the Hundred Days compelled the British to help Louis XVIII consolidate power over his nation by handing over the captured port of Saint-Louis, a rich trading post on the coast of Senegal, in 1816.
The 40-gun frigate Medusa (La Méduse) fought briefly in the Napoleonic wars but after the restoration the ship was repurposed and given a non-military mission. The vessel was part of a flotilla of four ships to take officials of the new regime to the colony. On board were around 400 people including soldiers, settlers and the governor designate of Senegal.
The ship was captained by the 53 year old Vicomte Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys, an aristocrat and old royalist émigré who had not been at sea for twenty years. Despite his lack of experience, de Chaumareys was given the captaincy of this important mission by the King simply for being a loyal royalist.
A couple of hundred miles off the coast of Africa the ship ran aground and became stuck in a sandbank. A huge makeshift raft was constructed for the ship to jettison cargo in order to free itself. But when a storm came and the crew feared the ship would break up, the captain ordered an immediate evacuation. However, there was a problem: the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats.
A plan was made for the travellers with higher social status — including the captain, of course — to be transported on the few lifeboats while 146 men and one woman were towed on the huge raft that was intended for cargo. For sustenance, those 147 people were given a bag of biscuits, two casks of water and six casks of wine.
The sheer weight of all those people caused the raft to submerge and food was thrown into the sea to lighten the load. What happened next is still a shocking event in French history, a horror among the horrors of colonialism.
Nobody knows for sure, but it is thought that the lifeboats -loaded up as they were with VIPs- panicked when it was thought that the raft would slow them down too much. The ropes were cut at some point leaving the raft, laden with the 147 people, adrift at sea.
When the raft was picked up thirteen days later, only fifteen men had survived and five died soon after. The people left adrift on the raft were already hungry and thirsty at the moment the ropes were cut. They chewed their belts to stave off hunger, they started to fight over the meagre supplies controlled by the officers.
When the casks of wine had been finished, there was a drunken mutiny, dozens of men were shot and stabbed, halving the number of those alive in just one night. During the skirmishes, what was left of the water was lost. The weak and dying were thrown overboard. Eventually, when despair set in, the taboo of cannibalism was broken and men began to eat the bodies of the dead.
The stories told by two of the survivors became an international scandal at a time that the nation was very uncomfortable with the restored regime. Captain de Chamereys was found to blame for the incident and was court-martialed, but the lingering feeling was that the Medusa incident was a metaphor for the French nation in the post-Napoleonic years: a nation ruined by incompetence and greed, a defeated nation with little hope.
Théodore Géricault, a promising young painter at the time, decided that the incident was going to be the subject of his most ambitious painting. He had read the testimony of two of the survivors and was as outraged by the tale of callousness and incompetence as much of French society was at the time.
He had for the most part taught himself in the Louvre, where he copied the works of renaissance and baroque masters, and the stables of Versailles, where he studied the anatomy of horses. This mostly self-led education enabled Géricault to make a name for himself as a painter of equestrian scenes.
Géricault had a minor reputation in 1818 when he began the work. He had exhibited successfully at the Paris Salon in 1812 but less successfully in 1814. The disappointment he had experienced as an exhibitor at the 1814 Salon led him to briefly join the army.
The ‘Paris Salon’ was the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, open to artists from all over the world. In other words, the Paris Salon was 19th century art’s equivalent to what the Fifa World Cup is to soccer now.
It was the most prestigious regular showcase of contemporary art at the time, a ticketed event that the well-heeled public flocked to and one that generated a huge amount of debate on matters from history and taste to politics and censorship.
In the minds of many artists, a critical triumph at the Salon was a triumph in the eyes of the entire art world.
Upon his return to painting, Géricault made painstaking plans to immortalise the shipwreck in vivid detail for the 1819 Salon. He interviewed survivors, visited morgues to make studies and took body parts back to his apartment – including a severed head from a lunatic asylum, of which he made several famous studies in preparation for his painting.
A scale model of the raft was constructed in Géricault’s studio with the help of three survivors, one of whom was a carpenter on the ship. The moment the artist chose to depict was the moment that the Argus, another ship in the flotilla to Senegal, suddenly appeared on the horizon. The last remaining survivors attempted to signal the ship but it passed by. Of this moment one of the survivors wrote:
‘From the delirium of joy, we fell into profound despondency and grief.’
As it happens, the Argus did return and eventually rescued the last remaining survivors.
The Painting was finished in 1819, when Géricault was only 27 years old and exhibited at the Paris Salon with the title “The Scene of a Shipwreck”. It was a generic title but nobody was left under the illusion that this was a scene of anything but the raft of the Medusa. The painting even depicts Henri Savigny, the ship’s surgeon (standing by the sail in the painting), who wrote the testimony that scandalised France. He had posed on the reconstructed raft in Géricault’s studio.
It was a monumental painting, enormous in fact. About 5 by 7 meters — 16 by 23 feet — with over-life sized figures in the foreground of the scene. It’s almost like standing in front of a cinema screen.
The stage, so to speak, was set. The painting gained the immediate notoriety that the painter had been hoping for. It was seen as an indictment of a corrupt regime and caused an enormous stir at the often crowded salon. Many were fiercely critical of the painting gratuitous morbidity and modern style, but republicans were supportive. The historian Jules Michelet said of the painting: “our whole society is aboard the raft of Medusa.”
The gory details
What made the painting effective was not the subject matter alone. Géricault meticulously planned the execution of the painting to have a number of dramatic effects on its audience.
For example, the raft is tipped up a little by a wave to give the painting an immersive power. Right in the bottom centre of the canvas is the corner of the raft, and it gives you the feeling that you could step onto it. This staging, and the sheer scale of the paining, intended to impress on the crowded room of the salon and it certainly does that to this day.
The composition is arranged into two pyramids made up of figures, one closer and one further from you the viewer. There is a pronounced diagonal across the painting, from the bodies of the dead and the despondent mourners across the bottom and to the left to the standing men on the upper right of the picture who have sighted the Argus and are waving frantically.
The colours are murky and dark, mostly browns. The sea is depicted in deep greens. The lighter tones are of pallid flesh and the pale light of dawn on the horizon. Géricault makes use of a style called “tenebrism” where dark tones and shadows are dominant but with dramatically contrasting effects of light. The effect of tenebrism has its origins in the Italian master Caravaggio, who revolutionised painting in the 17th century with his often shocking realistic portrayal of biblical scenes.
It is known that Géricault had traveled to Rome in the years before he painted the Raft of the Medusa and would have seen many of Caravaggio’s paintings in the grand baroque churches where they are confined. Géricault clearly borrows Caravaggio’s particularly dramatic use of light.
The weather is stormy and a large threatening wave is rolling towards the raft from the behind, this is all despite the fact that on the morning that the Argus was sighted, the weather was clear and calm. Géricault is being manipulative, he’s constructing a staging that guides our emotional response.
It’s not just the depiction of the weather that is misleading, Géricault drew on art history to aid his emotional construction. The figures of the living and some of the dying are muscular -even idealised- and evocative of the heroic figures of classical painting and sculpture, not of the starving.
The painting has one foot within the tradition of Neoclassicism, the style of art that flourished in France in the aftermath of the revolution. Neoclassicism was pretty much the opposite style from the preceding Rococo, which was a florid, often frivolous and complex style favoured by the French aristocracy.
Neoclassicism took its inspiration from the art of ancient Rome and Athens, those other great democratic republics. It was serious, austere and heroic, often resembling the statuary and friezes of ancient Rome. Géricault was immersed in the neoclassical style, it was practically the official style of the French state at the time.
It was also the style in which so called “history paintings” were produced, that is, paintings that depict historical scenes with a moral to impart. History painting was the eminent genre of painting at the time, the kind of painting that would carry moral and philosophical weight as well as technical sophistication.
Towards the bottom left is a father mourning his son, two figures inspired by Roman sculpture (of Patroclus held by Menelaus). Géricault used the common effects of this style to impart “seriousness” to his message.
The painting also takes inspiration from a style that was emerging at the time: Romanticism.
Romanticism was a style that evoked the sublime power of nature, the smallness of mankind, it was emotional and hysterically dramatic, a reaction to the rationalisation of nature through the enlightenment and the industrial revolution. Géricault admired the Baroque master Rubens, a whose opulent and highly stylised paintings served as a template for the romantic movement.
And so the Raft of the Medusa is a synthesis of the two styles. It is perhaps the first painting to truly import the romantic style into the French artistic scene. It does so by using the neoclassical history painting template to depict a contemporary scene of man’s confrontation with nature. Infact, one of the sailors depicted in the centre foreground of the painting, with his head bowed down to the viewer is Géricault’s young friend Eugene Delacroix, who became one of the most celebrated romantic painters.
Under the makeshift mast at the centre of the composition and forming the apex of the nearest compositional pyramid are from-life depictions of the men who brought the story back to France.
We have, then, this weird juxtaposition of contemporary and timeless, classically rendered, characters in the painting. It’s as if the Neoclassical format of the painting was a Trojan horse of sorts, a way of sneaking the scandal of the contemporary world into the art gallery by meeting its standards of style and seriousness.
The further compositional pyramid is the most extraordinary part. On the far-off horizon we see the Argus, and a group of figures are using a barrel to signal to the distant ship. At the apex of this group of figures is an african man, taking the lead in signalling to a ship with his shirt in his hand.
The decisive role of black men in the picture, and the placement of a black man at the very top of the composition, would have been shocking in France at the time. It’s highly likely that Géricault had abolitionist sympathies this was perhaps his way of making it known through his art, in an oblique yet pointed way.
The picture was both commended and condemned: it won a medal at the Salon but no buyer came forward for the controversial work. When the exhibition ended, Géricault cut the canvas from its frame, rolled the painting up, and unceremoniously sent it to be stored at a friend’s home. He lamented over the painting, saying: “It’s not worth looking at. I shall do better.”
Gericault went on to paint portraits of the most marginalised people in French society: the mentally and physically sick, the poor and the criminal. The Raft of Medusa was still left unsold but went on a tour of sorts to England where shocked revellers gawped at its naked and dying bodies. A replica was painted and shipped to the United States for the same reason: an appetite for the morbid details of France’s worst naval catastrophe. Even theatre productions of the incident took inspiration from the painting. For the subsequent years after its debut, the painting continued to be a controversial embarrassment to France’s royalist establishment.
In January 1824 Géricault died at the age of 32. In September of the same year King Louis XVIII died. It was only in this new political climate that the Louvre made the decision to acquire the work for its collection where it still hangs prominently as a testament to the intrinsic power of art to change the world, even if only a little; the power of art to speak to power.
The writing was on the wall for the Bourbon monarchy in France, Louis’s replacement, the unpopular Charles X, was overthrown in the second revolution of 1830 and replaced by a constitutional monarchy more acceptable to the lower and middle classes of France. In 1848, during a wave of unrest that swept across Europe, France once again became a republic.
We often feel as if it is our importance that brings our possessions and relationships into an orbit around us. Being “self-centred” isn’t necessarily about being selfish, it can be about feeling self-worth from the things and people around you.
As much as we marvel at them, we also fear losing them. TVs, phones, cars, homes, partners, friends, pets and jewellery help us validate ourselves, but are at the mercy of fate.
Marcus Aurelius became the most powerful man on the planet when his co-emperor, Lucius Verus died in 169 AD. Everything in the Roman world came into his orbit. Armies, cities, ports, palaces, vast estates.
Many would get drunk on that kind of power. The emperors Caligula, Nero, and Domitian before him met early deaths for their mania for more.
But Marcus counselled himself in his writings that all that surrounded him was little more than a wisp of smoke in the grand scheme of the universe.
The Stoic emperor was challenged in many ways. From the rivals in his own court, to the encroachments of Rome’s enemies at its borders, there were innumerable reasons for Marcus to feel inner turmoil. He found freedom from worries not in his possessions but in his own mind.
One of the exercises the philosopher-king used to gain a perspective on things was to take an elevated and distant view of the world, as if from among the stars. The idea occurs again and again in his journals, published after his death as The Meditations.
This is all put to the purpose of achieving what the ancient Greeks called apatheia, a tranquil state of mind unperturbed by the distractions of life around us.
To imagine the world around us from high above is to see how inconsequential the things around us are. This kind of “distancing” is a common technique in modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to quell over-thinking.
Thanks to technology, we now have a better idea of how big the universe is. The distances we now perceive are unimaginably vast. Our galaxy is among a huge cloud of millions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars like our sun. There are trillions and trillions of planets like our Earth in this vast cloud of galaxies.
It’s a cliche to be told that in the grand scheme of things you are insignificant. The earth is a molecule in a vast galaxy, itself a mere mote of dust in an inconceivably huge universe.
But the Stoics believed that we are part of the divine oneness of God. The universe is God and all things within it are part of God — part of the order of the cosmos. Of course the universe is massive, they would say. God is perfect, therefore the cosmos is infinite. The breath of life (pneuma) that makes up each human soul is itself a fragment of God’s soul.
For the Stoics the view from above was an exercise of spiritual contemplation as well as a meditation to find calm in the storm of life around them. This meditation allowed them to understand what is significant and what is not significant.
Marcus wrote in his journal: “It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of which you constitute an emanation.”
When we contemplate from the stars, we can realise that our material desires and insecurities are insignificant not because of the sheer size of the universe, but because we ourselves are part of that vast glittering whole. We are significant insomuch that we are part of the unity of the whole, the whole does not exist for our benefit.
Marcus wasn’t the first Roman philosopher to contemplate from the view from above. In the famous sixth chapter of his Republic, Cicero writes of a fictitious dream of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. The dream allows Cicero to expound a Roman conception of the universe and how it relates to Stoic virtues.
In Scipio’s dream, he is taken by his deceased grandfather, Scipio Africanus, a hero of the Second Punic War, up into a “shining circle” that the Greeks christened as the Milky Way.
Everything appears beautiful from this perspective, which Africanus explains is reserved for the deceased that have lived virtuously.
Scipio was taken aback at seeing the Earth,
“[W]hich at that distance appeared so exceedingly small, that I could not but be sensibly affected on seeing our whole empire no larger than if we touched the earth with a point.”
The account continues,
“as long as I continued to observe the earth with great attention, ‘How long, I pray you,’ said Africanus, ‘will your mind be fixed on that object; why don’t you rather take a view of the magnificent temples among which you have arrived?’”
The entire Roman Empire was just a tiny “point” on the Earth, itself a tiny point: a floating speck in the grand temple of the universe. What matters is not your daily life on Earth, replete with its yearnings for wealth, sex and fame, Cicero’s Africanus is saying, but your place in the universe. This is the basis of thinking and acting virtuously.
“Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings will wash away the filth of life on the ground […] View earthly things as if looking down on them from a high point above.”
Amidst this “filth” is dirty politics and competition for fame and fortune. The craving for fame and wealth in the circus of Roman politics would have been immense. Marcus was likely surrounded by sycophants and rivals hoping to make their reputation or fortune in the Empire.
The view from above would have grounded Marcus and everything around him in the realisation that fame is nothing. He wrote:
“Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many praise you but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.”
Anicius Boethius, a Roman magistrate and philosopher, echoed this sentiment in The Consolation of Philosophy, a text he wrote while waiting to be executed in 524 AD. Fame is “puny and insubstantial”, he wrote, when you realise that the earth “may be thought of as having no extent at all” when compared with the heavens.
If that doesn’t sound small enough, only a small amount of the surface of the earth is inhabited. The civilised world is “the tiny point within a point… in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour.”
In the heavens, we can see constancy and real beauty. The celestial spheres burn with splendour. In the heavens above we see a pure order of nature.
“The Pythagoreans say, ‘Look at the sky at dawn’ — to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.”
Some of us find meaning in our careers, some in devotion to their football team. We devote ourselves to our public image, we veil ourselves with conceits. But devotion to things out of our ultimate control put your emotions — and even your sanity — at the mercy of their fortunes.
Instead, see the meaning in the constancy of the heavens. The rhythms of the earth are a faint echo of the vast cycles of the universe. The ancient astronomers observed a precision in the celestial motions and so it’s no surprise that these motions inspired thoughts of constancy and order within.
The Stoics believed that virtue lies in living in accordance with nature. Human orientation (oikeiôsis) is to reason. Cicero observed that the best among us transfer the order and beauty of the universe to ensure that they are preserved in our actions.
Whatever you believe, you have an undeniable part to play in the universe. The significance of your longings and cravings is no match for the turning kaleidoscope of which you are a part. Invest your passions into being part of the whole, and when you feel you’re at the mercy of fate, rise above it all.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
A brutal example of the relationship between art and justice
A truly worthy artist knows how to paint well and imitate nature. Michelangelo Merisi from Caravaggio.
In the history of Western painting, Caravaggio occupies a unique place. Few geniuses had such an influence on the later development of the visual arts without, yet, leaving a school of their own.
Master of the chiaroscuro technique, Caravaggio anticipated modern painting by nearly three centuries, by bringing to the center of art the reality of human drama as experienced by common people. As the result of his turbulent life, Caravaggio’s art unveils the intricate relationships between creative genius, law, and diplomacy.
Born on September 29, 1571, in Milan, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio experienced human suffering early. In 1576, his family was forced to move to the city he adopted as his surname — Caravaggio — to escape a pandemic that devastated the Milanese population at the time.
We can only imagine what he went through. He lost his father and grandfather on the same day in 1577. The boy was only five years old. Less than ten years later, at the age of thirteen, Caravaggio would lose his mother, in the same year of 1578, in which he would begin his apprenticeship in the studio of Simone Peterzano, a pupil of Titian. We can say that a tall tree takes root in hell.
And that tree didn’t take long to grow and bear fruit. Fruits full of thorns. Caravaggio had a bohemian spirit, irascible and violent. He made history for his notorious inability to control his aggression. In short, dear reader, Caravaggio was arrogant, short-tempered, and a troublemaker.
He didn’t take shit home. He was the perfect type of indomitable genius, which led him to develop an intimate relationship with the court system at the time. The first trouble that is known is that, in 1592, at the age of twenty-one, Caravaggio would have attacked a policeman in Milan. This would have forced him to flee to Rome, with the clothes on his back.
Some evils come to the good, the saying goes. In Rome, a miserable Caravaggio found shelter with a stingy fellow, known as “Monsignor Salad”. The name exists because of the lousy provision he offered his guests. Caravaggio has a falling out with him and ends up homeless. So strong was Caravaggio’s genius and character that a few months after the incident he was already working in the studio of Giuseppe Cesari, Pope Clement VIII’s favorite painter. It was the beginning of his conquest of Rome.
Before long, Caravaggio fell in the favor of one of the leading diplomats of the time, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte (1549–1627), who became his patron. In 1599, influenced by the cardinal, Caravaggio was commissioned to decorate the Contarelli Chapel, in the Church of San Luigi Dei Francesi, and presented two masterpieces: “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” and “The Vocation of Saint Matthew”.
Those pieces made Caravaggio the most famous artist in Rome.
From them, in an impressive procession of artistic genius, Caravaggio painted one masterpiece after another until he died in 1610. His success, however, was accompanied by growing brutality. His life was full of gambling, women, and unhealthy habits. But Caravaggio’s unlimited freedom would be the very mark of his art.
Hence its symbiotic relationship with the Italian law and judicial system at the time. Rome’s police archives are still being researched to reconstruct Caravaggio’s story. Yet, it is known that he was present in at least 11 legal proceedings, most of them for assaults and illegal possession of weapons. This one is particularly valuable.
Caravaggio’s fame and his unique style of unprepared painting — he painted directly on the canvas, without doing preparatory studies –, attracted some imitators. Caravaggio hated them. He even circulated offensive verses, in which he ridiculed Giovanni Baglione as a plagiarist. Baglione, who would later become his first biographer, sued him for libel in 1606, offering Caravaggio an opportunity, not realized, to record for posterity the principles of his theory of art.
The reader can imagine the historical importance of such a well-conducted and recorded court case. The State Archives in Rome contains the most vivid history of that artistic period, without which it would not be possible to understand the motivations, alliances, and relationships that spawned some of humanity’s greatest works of art.
Caravaggio wrote nothing, neither about himself nor about art. But, in judgment, he gave immortal statements like the following: “being a man of value is to deeply understand painting, as I do, is to be able to reproduce reality, the natural (…) I leave the arrogance of empty words to others, I let my works speak for me”.
Caravaggio invented the humanization of art, reproducing saints and biblical characters in the most brutal nudity of their most sincere and true humanity. And this was unheard of and scandalous until then.
And it is at this point that we are able to realize the immense diplomatic impact of Caravaggio’s work. It was the period of the Protestant Reformation, a time when the West had been fragmented with the wars of religion, which broke out, among other reasons, because the Catholic Church had alienated itself from the daily lives of common people.
In reaction to the Protestant revolts, the Church launched the Counter-Reformation, a movement of rebirth and restructuring, which aimed to bring Rome closer to the human experience as we lived in this world. The clash turned into a veritable culture war, in which no one understood and represented the Counter-Reformation worldview better than Caravaggio.
In his work, the saints are portrayed in the fragility of their most human aspect, creating such a strong identification with the viewer that many, at the time, could not even look at their canvases. Caravaggio was the absolute genius of Counter-Reformation cultural diplomacy.
There is an extra point, which connects Caravaggio to the legal world in an ever-current theme. Due to gambling debt, on May 28, 1606, Caravaggio involved himself in a duel with Ranuccio Tommassoni, which ended in his death. The episode forced Caravaggio to flee to Malta and then to Sicily, where he was commissioned to make many other masterpieces.
The case went to trial, and Caravaggio was sentenced in absentia to the death penalty, which in his case would have been by decapitation. Caravaggio, then, in search of mercy, paints the masterpiece “David with the Head of Goliath”, in which the biblical hero is portrayed with a look of mercy at the extracted head of the giant, which is, in reality, an autoportrait of Caravaggio with the mark of the damned on his forehead. The work is perhaps the greatest manifesto in art history against the death penalty. For Caravaggio, death is not a punishment, but a release.
The 450th anniversary of Caravaggio’s birth, finally, invites us to reflect on the intricate relationships between art, law, and diplomacy.
Caravaggio’s work was so intense that it was removed from the general public for three centuries, having only been rehabilitated in the 20th century, from the moment when Picasso, when painting the “Guernica”, declared that he wanted to be able to portray the horse throughout. its animality, as Caravaggio had done in the “Conversion of São Paulo”.
Caravaggio acted as a bass continuo, influencing the artists, but away from the public. Time, as it is, did him justice. Tandem Obtinet (Justice triumphs ).
The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah
When I was growing up Christian, nobody told me the religion took its key images of Jesus from queer painters.
How ironic, I’d realize later, for a religion that hated the dreaded “gays” to love Michelangelo, Leonardo, etc. Christians loved the movie The Passion of the Christ. The director, Mel Gibson, spoke of his inspiration:
“I think his work is beautiful. I mean it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s spiritual and it also has an odd whimsy or strangeness to it. And it’s so real looking.”
The Italian painter Caravaggio had shown Christians how to see Jesus as a physical man. It took a homosexual to do that?
I’m learning only now about Caravaggio’s influence on Christianity.
He was born—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—in Milan in 1571. Not a lot is known about him. A recent biography, by Peter Robb, begins with a warning that the evidence is mostly:
“…lies to the police, reticence in court, extorted confessions, forced denunciations, revengeful memoirs, self-justifying hindsight, unquestioned hearsay, diplomatic urbanities, theocratic diktat, reported gossip, threat and propaganda, angry outburst — hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest.”
In a world that Christianity had made, in other words, there were mostly lies and shaded truths. As Caravaggio began an art project which struck his contemporaries as astonishing, and horrifying.
He would paint actual people.
There were no halos or heavenly visions.
There were no deities hovering above the earth, with odd smiles. He painted Bible scenes as if they had occurred on earth.
“He preferred nature as his best — and only — teacher,” notes the scholar Joseph Ostenson. “It was an approach to mysticism grounded in the physical — the real—realm.”
To read Christian history about this time, one is given details about the “Counter-Reformation” and ongoing wars of Catholics and Protestants—each calling the other “sodomites” as the worst insult they knew.
Meanwhile, Caravaggio was thinking about real people.
The subject of Caravaggio’s sexuality has been a difficult one for Christianity.
Little about him was known until the 1950s, when art historians began to assemble the pieces. Many would note, as the scholar John Champagne writes, that Caravaggio’s male figures “present eroticized male bodies.”
The women — not so much. He never painted a female nude. He never married. The Italian public has tended to reject talk of the matter. An 2012 Italian newspaper declares: “Caravaggio Was Not Gay, He Was Normal.”
But there seems to be a coherent narrative of a male partner. Caravaggio seems to have met Francesco Boneri as a 12-year-old. Born around 1588, ‘Cecco’ may have been sent to him as an apprentice.
After awhile, Caravaggio is painting him — over and over — in works that Robb notes are “most remarkable and deeply felt and radically intimate paintings,” works full of “joyeous and untrammelled sexual energy.”
Cecco becomes an angel, and John the Baptist.
Years later, an English writer met Cecco, who was working as a painter, and recorded that he’d been Caravaggio’s “owne boy or servant that laid with him.”
Cecco had by then taken the name ‘Cecco del Caravaggio’.
This boy becomes a means of staging a discussion of predatory male sexuality.
Over and over, Cesso is cast in the most difficult dramas. He is Isaac about to be sacrificed by Abraham—with that rather phallic-looking knife.
But Cesso is also a divine force. As X-rays of the painting revealed, the angel who tells Abraham not to do it was originally Cecco as well.
In David with the Head of Goliath, Cecco re-appears as the young David — as Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of the giant.
The drama of the older and younger man replays over and over — as the younger man prevails, and brings a new consciousness into the world.
Scholars too can resist an effort to describe Caravaggio as ‘homosexual’.
A 2005 paper by Luiz Fernando Viotti Fernandes, “The Sexuality of Caravaggio and His Artistic Identity,” goes through some evidence, and purports to find it inconclusive—on the evidence that no one from the past can be called, by current standards, ‘homosexual’, and the “sex lives of Renaissance artists were probably often bisexual.”
John Champagne is a little more convinced. He reads many Caravaggio paintings as full of queer signs and suggestions. Look at Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, he notes. Isn’t there an odd emphasis on the muscular buttock of one of the soldiers?—lit dramatically and wearing only a contrasting red and gold fabric.
The viewer is prompted to look at—the ass of a Roman soldier?
Seemingly in control, the soldier is himself sexually vulnerable.
All of Caravaggio’s paintings seem to have a certain queer subtext.
He had done a previous painting of the Old Testament scene of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. The scholar Graham L. Hammill reads it in a 2000 study, Sexuality and Form.
The bodies of the man and the boy, he notes, are positioned to suggest sex is about to happen—“which the angel of God attempts to terminate.”
The angel and the boy seem to have the same face—one lit in divine light, one in shadow. But where Isaac is held down, an object for sexual use, the angel as a divinity forces Abraham to look at him.
The message is: you need to see me as a person.
I take Caravaggio to suggest that all male interactions have a whiff of homoerotic energy. It was a world, certainly, where the sexual use of boys was considered ordinary.
Even if he had done this himself, he wants it to stop. This dehumanization, the use of others, must stop, the angel says—even if done in the name of “religion.”
Caravaggio’s paintings suggest a new kind of sexuality.
In a world that saw sex as an “act” to be done—with little concern for the partner—he shows real people as illuminated, bodies that are spiritually charged.
They are penetrable, but the body being entered is divine. We see this, for example, when Jesus guides Thomas’ hands to touching his body — an intimate moment of physical exploration.
“Caravaggio’s depiction of the wound and Thomas’s probing finger is particularly explicit: Thomas inserts a finger deep inside the cut, unlike many earlier Italian versions of the subject in which this contact is less invasive.”
Allow a real person to be divine, might be the suggestion?
Caravaggio’s Jesus can be curiously sexy — certainly not the weird, withered, emaciated form that many paintings had offered.
As in The Flagellation of Christ, this messiah is nearly a male stripper.
We look as well at the men in shadow who are being so mean — even as they’re just being ‘men’.
The new message: being ordinary — isn’t good.
After Caravaggio died, Cecco continued his own career as a painter.
He frequently did works on Biblical subjects—often with odd positioning of muscular male bodies.
I find myself wondering if his own Penitent Magdalene—a portrait of the fallen women—could be a self-portrait as a woman.
His greatest work would appear to be The Resurrection, supposedly about the Second Coming, though a critic notes the imagery “seems more concerned with muscular legs and coy glances than any action involving the return of Christ from the dead.”
It seems to me that both angels—these strange, floating, voguing, half-naked men—might also be inflected with his self-portrait.
A man, a woman, an angel—a Cecco who is a divine everything.
Where would Christianity have been without its queer artists?
Thinking of a religion without Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio, or Cecco del Caravaggio—I’m left musing about an alternate world that would be, really, a wasteland of ordinary people.
But thankfully, they got a little help from their friends. 🔶