Narcissus—Caravaggio

The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

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Caravaggio’s Paintings In the Churches of Rome

Where to see the Baroque artist’s masterpieces in their original locations

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Not all art was made to be bought and sold. Some works of art were made for specific locations, where they were designed to live for decades and centuries. Such artworks are especially interesting because they occupy a very real space, and therefore, can be read within an architectural and social setting.

One such case is the art of Caravaggio, who made some of his best work for several churches in Rome, works that still hang in their original locations.

Caravaggio had an important relationship with the city of Rome: he moved there from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years, established his considerable reputation with a number of prominent commissions. These works were on public view and were made to communicate directly with church-goers of the 17th century.

It is worth remembering that the electric lighting that now illuminates these paintings creates a different sort of scene than in Caravaggio’s day. In the early 17th century, the minimal natural light from the church windows and doorways would have been supplemented by the flickering light of oil lamps and candle flame.

San Luigi dei Francesi

One of the first major commissions Caravaggio received was in 1599, to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona. The chapel was dedicated to St Matthew, and Caravaggio initially painted two scenes from the saint’s life: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, both completed in around 1600.

There was also a third painting, commissioned after Caravaggio had completed the first pair and the patron was happy. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, and subsequently removed from the church — it was later destroyed during WWII — but the second version was accepted. Otherwise known as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, the painting still hangs in the church today, and is for me one of the great paintings of the Baroque period.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The image of St Matthew gives us the apostle in the act of writing. Matthew is the traditional author of the first gospel, and so paintings often show him in a study or at a writing desk. As one of the evangelists, he is usually accompanied by his traditional attribute, a winged figure resembling an angel.

Detail of ’The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’ (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Caravaggio’s painting follows this model: the angel can be seen dictating or providing inspiration as Matthew writes.

Caravaggio also does a great deal more with the subject. He provides a setting that is both abstract and ambiguous (set against a dark background) whilst at the same time building up a scene full of real textures, fabrics and expressions. Despite having no definite setting, there is nothing other-worldly about the image; rather, it is close-at-hand and tangible.

Matthew and the angel are in an intimate exchange. And the gentle curve that moves through composition of the painting, from the sweeping lines of the angel’s robes through Matthews body and his outstretched leg, gives the work a perfect internal unity.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

S. Maria del Popolo

At around the same time, Caravaggio was asked to work on paintings for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo.

Two works can be found in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is an especially arresting painting. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and one of the closest to Christ. He was the brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. After Christ’s crucifixion, Peter led the apostles in spreading the word of the gospel, and in Rome established one of the first Christian communities.

His own crucifixion came at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in A.D. 64. At Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t believe he was worthy enough to be killed in the same manner as Jesus.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio’s depiction is notable for several reasons. The physicality of the moment is remarkably vivid: one need only examine the three workers who are raising the cross, each of them occupied by a different task, to understand that this is no idealised account, but a cruel act of real men on another human being. One man hoists a rope; another bears the weight of the wooden structure in his hand; the third stoops to press his back into the cross to help raise it, also holding a shovel in his hand to dig the hole for the stake.

All three workers are are shown with the marks of toil and industry. Their feet are blackened with dust and their hands and arms pulse with raised veins.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Peter himself is shown in a state of distress combined with disbelief, as he his hoisted backwards on the cross. The very moment depicted emphasises his vulnerability: he is an old man in a loin cloth, frightened by the prospect of his last few moments alive. It was Caravaggio’s ability to bring out the psychological drama of a scene, and to make it so graphically present, that won him many admirers — and critics too.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio, in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Basilica di Sant’Agostino

Caravaggio’s realistic style draw criticism because he was so willing to forgo idealisation, even when the scenes were traditional subjects of veneration.

There is no better example of this than the Madonna di Loreto (Pilgrim’s Madonna), completed around 1605 for the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, a Renaissance church near Piazza Navona. The painting is located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church and shows the the Madonna and Child being visited by two pilgrims, who kneel in prayer before them.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Caravaggio has painted Mary in a naturalistic pose, that of a mother bearing the weight of her child on her hip. It is a much less glorified posture — clearly drawn from real life — than the Renaissance tradition had previously established, with Mary tending to hold the child as he were weightless.

Mary is stood in a simple doorway on a stone step; the wall beside her is cracked and flaking. All of the figures have bear feet. The only suggestion that this is a sacred scene is the faint elliptical halo above Mary’s head.

Later critics would claim that Caravaggio made a disrespectful and indecent treatment of the subject. And yet, it remained a popular image for the church-goers, perhaps because the rustic details gives the painting something of a pastoral quality, raising the act of faith as displayed by the destitute pilgrims to the level of pure devotion.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Recent Restoration

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

How a female artist broke with convention in this vivid and gruesome painting

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Take some time to look at this painting. It is dramatic and gruesome. It is also complicated.

It was painted by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Not only was she a supremely talented painter, she was also unusual for being a woman in a predominantly male profession. In 17th-century European art, Artemisia was an exception. Her willingness to challenge convention meant she become the first woman to gain membership to the Florence Academy of the Arts of Drawing in 1616. This self-confidence is also evident in her art, not least in this painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, made sometime between 1614 and 1620 when Gentileschi was in her twenties.

The event depicted is the climatic moment of the story of Judith and Holofernes, as told in the Old Testament and later elaborated in apocryphal texts.

Judith was a beautiful and wealthy widow from the Jewish city of Bethulia. The city was at war with the Assyrian army. Desperately under siege, Bethulia was on the point of surrender. The Assyrians were led by a general called Holofernes. In order to save her city, Judith devised a scheme to kill Holofernes; she pretended to desert her people and cross over into enemy territory. Captivated by her beauty, Holofernes put on a banquet for Judith, and then later took her back to his private quarters. Intent on seducing her, he was instead sedated by too much wine, at which Judith seized his sword and with two swift blows, severed his head. She and her maidservant took the severed head in a sack and returned to Bethulia. After the fate of Holofernes had been discovered, the Assyrian army quickly fell into disarray and consequently retreated.

In this painting, Gentileschi chose to show the actual moment of the assassination. The challenge that she poses to the viewer is to look upon the scene without recoiling. She gives us the most direct view possible, with fierce attention paid to the bloody realism of the slaying.

Gentileschi’s style was strongly influenced by the preeminent artist of Rome at the time, Caravaggio. As artists looked to each other for ideas and inspiration, Gentileschi and her father (Orazio Gentileschi, who was also an artist) incorporated elements of Caravaggio’s painting style into their work.

Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes reviled — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. His extreme form of chiaroscuro, using contrasts of light and dark, meant his scenes became events of heightened drama, where the details of gesture or facial expression were pronounced in the vivid language of highlights and shadow.

Caravaggio painted his own version of Judith and Holofernes in 1599, some two decades before Gentileschi. It was, up until Gentileschi’s version, perhaps the most macabre version of the scene ever painted.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas.

Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. Judith is seen holding the severed head in her hands or in a basket, or else displaying it on a plate. These works tended to emphasise Judith’s wealth, making her fine clothes and jewellery a central emblem of the image and thereby underlining her noble status — and by implication, the nobleness of the deed.

Judith and Holofernes (c.1579) by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Gentileschi’s painting, under the influence of Caravaggio, focuses on the more graphic moment of the murder. Judith has taken hold of Holofernes’ head by grasping a clutch of hair and turning his head away from her, drawing the sword across his neck. It is a gruesome and vivid portrayal that has no intention of softening the brutal nature of the act.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Spiralling around Holofernes’ contorted head is a complex arrangement of overlapping arms, which array outwards like the spokes of a wheel. This patterning of flesh tones acts as a kind of semi-circle around Holofernes’ head, against which his dark beard, the shape of the sword and the spray of blood stand out vividly. The triumph of Gentileschi’s composition is in how we look directly into Holofernes’ eyes, which are wide open as if he is watching his own death unfold.

To foreground Holofernes’ head in this way helps to anchor the composition on a single point. All of the elements of the work are built up around this atomic core. The arms of all three protagonists, as they flare outwards, form a sort of spiral around Holofernes’ twisted face.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Beyond this, there is another semicircle made up of the red, blue and gold fabrics of the protagonists’ clothing. The red cloak that covers Holofernes begins the shape; it passes through the blue of the maid’s clothing and culminates in Judith’s golden dress.

The two women who undertake the deed, Judith and her maid, are painted with intense concentration on their faces. It is neither disgust nor vitriol they express, but instead a type of practical determination. In this way, the psychological tension of the work is somehow balanced out: Judith undertakes her deed with a steadfastness that regulates some of the horror of the scene. Still, the macabre touches persist: in the spray of blood from Holofernes’ severed arteries, Gentileschi has substituted Judith’s jewellery with a ruby necklace of blood.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

Judith Slaying Holofernes was in fact Gentileschi’s second attempt at the subject. An earlier version, painted sometime before 1612, operates as a kind of forerunner to the later version.

Left: Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1612) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy. Right: Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

The similarities between the two paintings are quite clear. In the first, the overall composition is fully laid out and changes little into the second. Where the differences show are in the intensity of the scene. For in the more recent work, the chiaroscuro is stronger. There is almost no suggestion of depth in either painting; yet in the second, the highlights are painted with greater conviction. Judith’s dress has switched to yellow. The tonal contrasts in Holofernes’ face are more noticeable. Both the nocturnal setting and also the main event in the foreground are emphasised. Everything is more intense.

Detail of ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Much of Gentileschi’s reputation, particularly in recent years, has been shaped by the rape she endured as a teenager in 1611, at the hands of another artist, Agostino Tassi. The case went to trial and remarkably detailed court records exist. They capture Gentileschi’s entire testimony, from which her voice rings out clearly: “He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them. Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming.”

Despite the clarity of Gentileschi’s court testimony, the outcome of the trial was complicated, owing to the fact that Gentileschi and Tassi continued to have relations after the event, and also because of the contemporary expectation of Gentileschi having been a virgin prior to the rape, without which the charges could not have been pressed. At the end of the trial, a disgraced Tassi was exiled from Rome, although no sentence was ever enforced.

Readings of Gentileschi’s art have been strongly influenced by these events, with many historians choosing to interpret her paintings as a proto-feminist response to her experiences. The idea is that Gentileschi took revenge on Tassi — and on men in general — through her gruesome depictions.

It is true that many of Gentileschi’s paintings focus on strong female heroines from myth, allegory and the Bible. Two of her most well-known works are Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, both of which show strong female protagonists in opposition to men.

Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe the content of Gentileschi’s art to the events in her personal life. It is perhaps more appropriate to read her paintings within a wider historical context. For instance, as a woman it is likely that she was limited only to female models, including her daughters and sometimes herself, which explains her apparent preference for female subjects. She also worked under the patronage of grand-dukes and kings; in short, she worked within a marketplace and served tastes for dramatic narratives from the Bible or classical sources.

Gentileschi was an artist who, against the prevailing conditions of the time, developed a successful career as a painter in a male-dominated field. More than this, she made work that continue to astonish viewers even four centuries after they were made. Paintings like Judith Slaying Holofernes are evidence enough of a remarkable talent and a self-confident individual.

450 Years of Caravaggio Tandem Obtinet

A brutal example of the relationship between art and justice

Judith Beheading Holofernes — Caravaggio (1598–1599 or 1602)

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”.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew -Caravaggio (c. 1599–1600)

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.

David with the Head of Goliath — Caravaggio (1610)

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 ).

Caravaggio’s Gay Jesus

The Italian painter gave Christianity a real messiah

Ottavio Leoni, chalk portrait of Caravaggio, c.1621

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?

Caravaggio, “Christ at the Column” (1607); Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)

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.

Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalene” (c.1595)

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’.

Caravaggio, ”Amor Vincit Omnia” (c.1602); “John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)” (1602)

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.

Caravaggio, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1602); “David with the Head of Goliath” (c.1610)

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.

Caravaggio, “The Taking of Christ” (c.1602)

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.

Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac” (c.1598)

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.

The scholar Erin Benay writes of the painting:

“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.”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601)

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.

“Madonna and Child with St. Anne” (1605); “The Flagellation of Christ” (1607)

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.

Cecco del Caravaggio, “Penitent Magdalen” (before 1620)

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.

“Resurrection” by Cecco del Caravaggio (c.1620)

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. 🔶