Repoussoir-To Push Back

Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?

A powerful trick that so many paintings employ

Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, United States.

It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.

On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.

The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?

Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna (c.1639) by Claude Lorrain. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.

Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…

Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.

The Parthenon (1871) by Frederic Edwin Church. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States.

The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.

So what’s happening in all of these paintings?

Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.

The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)

In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.

Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.

Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. Oil on canvas. Kunst Museum Winterthur.

Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.

The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.

(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.

Detail of ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London.

Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.

Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.

The Art of Painting (1666–1668) by Johannes Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.

In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.

The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.


Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.


Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

Une Breve Histoire de la Republique de Venise, ou “Les Croates de la Serenissime”

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Venise est entrée au contact de nombreux peuples au cours de son histoire. Tandis que la République sérénissime étendait sa domination et déployait ses talents militaires et marchands, elle se faisait d’abord admirer par ses nouveaux sujets, auxquels elle accordait sa protection. 
Elle était toujours prête à combattre l’injustice et l’oppression dans la mesure où n’étaient pas desservis ses intérêts hégémoniques. Mais, cela commença plutôt mal…

Au Xe siècle, pour s’assurer l’accès des bouches du Pô en même temps que le monopole du sel, le doge Pietro II fit mettre à sac Comacchio et déporter les populations vivant dans ces marécages. 
En l’an mil commencèrent les expéditions sur le littoral dalmate, afin d’obtenir le contrôle de l’Adriatique tout entière. Zara, Ossero, Vaglia et bien d’autres villes furent conquises. Les forces vénitiennes avaient à lutter à la fois contre les Croates et contre les Slaves, qui avaient envahi les Balkans. 
Au fleuve Narenta, les habitants de la ville romaine de Narona pratiquaient la piraterie et le trafic d’esclaves. Les Vénitiens étaient leurs meilleurs clients. À leur contact, les pillards découvrirent que le commerce était tout de même plus avantageux. Vers la fin du XIe siècle, après la conquête des îles de Curzola et de Lagosta, les côtes dalmates étaient entièrement sous la protection de Venise.

La percée vers l’Orient

Vers cette époque, les Vénitiens eurent à lutter contre les seigneurs normands qui s’étaient installés en Méditerranée. Ils s’allièrent donc avec les Byzantins, leurs rivaux, pour libérer l’île de Corfou et de Durazzo (Duras). Venise obtint alors de pouvoir commercer librement sur tous les territoires contrôlés par Byzance. 
En 1122–1124, les Vénitiens soumirent la ville de Tyr et les comptoirs byzantins de l’Égée et de l’Adriatique. Vers le milieu du siècle, ils renforcèrent leurs liens avec les peuples de l’Istrie. Pola, Parenzo, Rovigno furent contraintes d’accepter une protection militaire et maritime contre les débordements des Hongrois. Cette protection obligatoire se transforma rapidement en soumission des terres environnantes et, finalement, le doge fut reconnu comme le seul maître.

La colonisation de la Crète

Vis-à-vis des Grecs, Venise pratiquait un double jeu, maniant tour à tour les pressions diplomatiques et les actes de piraterie. En 1204, la ville du lion de Saint-Marc profita de la quatrième croisade pour enlever Zara aux Hongrois. Les forces chrétiennes détournées de leur but prirent Constantinople cette année-là. De ses prestations de service, la République maritime reçut pour salaire deux îles de la mer Egée, la Morée et l’Eubée puis, en 1207, l’île de Crète. Elle s’assurait ainsi les routes de l’Asie mineure.

Cependant, une chose était d’occuper Candie, et une autre de tenir la Crète tout entière. La grandeur de l’île dépassait sans doute les possibilités militaires de Venise. Durant l’occupation, soulèvements et guerillas se succédèrent. Ce fut la première fois — l’intérêt territorial prévalant sur l’aspect stratégique — que la Sérénissime entreprit une véritable « vénitisation » d’une colonie.

Le gouvernement et l’administration de la Crète étaient aux mains de grandes familles vénitiennes exclusivement. Dispersés, les colons ne parvinrent jamais à trouver un terrain d’entente avec les colonisés. Sauf peut-être contre Venise elle-même, dans la révolte de 1363, fomentée par un chef de village crétois et appuyée par les colons : les Venier, les Gradenigo, les Molin… Confiée à un Pisani (Vettero), la répression fut terrible. Les Crétois furent écrasés par Pietro Morosini.

Par les célèbres voyages de Marco Polo et de sa famille, les Vénitiens entrèrent en contact avec les nations d’Extrême-Orient. Ils développèrent des échanges diplomatiques et commerciaux avec les Persans, comme avec les Mongols et les Chinois.

Les guerres avec Gênes

À partir de 1308, et de la guerre contre Ferrare, on note un durcissement des rapports entre Venise et ses voisines : Padoue, Vérone et surtout Gênes. C’est l’époque où Trévise souhaite et obtient le protectorat de la République. La guerre contre Gênes fut sanglante et très coûteuse. Elle fut à l’origine de la peste (1347–1348) qui décima la population vénitienne. Une situation désastreuse s’instaura. Pour survivre, Venise dut s’allier avec d’autres peuples, comme les Catalans, et faire appel à ses sujets dalmates, grecs ou albanais pour renforcer ses armées.

Au cours de la troisième guerre contre les Génois, la coalition vénéto-catalane remporta une victoire navale dans les eaux d’Alghero (1353), bientôt suivie d’une cuisante défaite à Porto Longo (1354). 
La menace la plus précise survint en 1379. Les Padouans, sous les ordres de Carraresi, apportèrent leur soutien aux Génois et attaquèrent Chioggia, à proximité de Venise. Jamais la Sérénissime n’avait été aussi menacée. 
L’offensive fut cependant stoppée, grâce à la cohésion des habitants de la cité, groupés autour du doge Andrea Contarini. Les Vénitiens parvinrent à séparer les armées de Gênes et de Padoue et, par mer, portèrent la dévastation dans les comptoirs génois de la mer Égée. Ils allèrent jusqu’à Beyrouth. En 1381, Gênes signa la paix grâce aux bons offices du comte de Savoie.

La dernière décennie du XIVe siècle et les deux premières du XVe furent marquées par une expansion de Venise en direction de la terre ferme. Corfou fut acquise des Angevins de Naples en 1386. Venise fut en relation marchande avec la plupart des peuples du nord de l’Europe : Flamands, Français, Allemands… Cependant, l’expansion territoriale du début du XVe siècle finit par inquiéter les principales puissances : France, Espagne, Empire germanique, Papauté… Contre Venise se noua la ligue de Cambrai, dont Venise vint à bout par son habileté diplomatique (1508).

La menace turque et la victoire de Lépante

En 1571, la formidable victoire maritime de Lépante, contre les Ottomans, illustre la suprématie maritime de Venise. Cependant, le début du déclin de la Sérénissime est proche

Aux XVe et XVIe siècles, les Turcs ne cessèrent d’être une terrible menace. Pour les arrêter, Venise n’eut pas d’autre recours que de s’allier avec les Hongrois — ses ennemis “héréditaires”, pourtant. Une campagne commune en Dalmatie donna le Frioul aux Vénitiens. La Sérénissime favorisait la constitution d’un État vénitien de la terre ferme. Un peu partout, dans son empire, Venise était au contact des Ottomans. De 1424 (prise de Salonique) à 1571 (bataille de Lépante), les deux mondes semblèrent s’équilibrer.

Bien qu’elle fut, au premier chef, victorieuse de la grande bataille navale de Lépante, Venise commença dès lors à décliner. C’est que le pouvoir ottoman, pour faire rentrer ses lourds impôts, favorisait les initiatives commerciales de ses “sujets”. 
La concurrence des marchands grecs, turcs, renégats chrétiens, arméniens, arabes, barbaresques, ragusiens ou juifs était extrêmemet dure et les Vénitiens en pâtirent très vite. Pour les peuples levantins, l’arrivée de la protection ottomane était une sorte de revanche. Le sultan les vengeait de l’arrogance proverbiale des marchands de Venise.

De la mer à la terre : une ville et ses communautés

La puissance maritime perdue, Venise devint une nation terrienne. L’arrogance se tourna désormais contre les paysans de la terre ferme. Dans la cité, depuis des siècles, un modus vivendiavait fixé les rapports entre les diverses communautés. La plus nombreuse était celle des Grecs, composée de marins et de savants exilés. Ceux-ci avaient apporté à Venise leurs connaissances et leur culture. Les “intellectuels” du patriciat vénitien (ou du clergé) n’ignoraient rien de la langue d’Homère ou de la philosophie de Platon. De nombreux ouvrages étaient ainsi conservés dans les plus fameuses bibliothèques — c’est ainsi qu’ils furent sauvés.

Les Turcs eurent leur quartier — le “Fondaco dei Turchi” –, ainsi que les Allemands, les “Tedeschi”. C’est par ces derniers, émigrés de Mayence après la dispersion des ateliers, que Venise découvrit l’imprimerie.

Les Esclavons, orignaires de Slavonie, donnèrent leur nom au quai devant la place Saint-Marc. Ils vivaient de trafics divers et du métier de soldat.

On trouvait aussi à Venise des Arméniens et des Juifs du Levant, qui donnèrent son nom à l’île de la Judecca. Les Juifs eurent un grand rôle dans les domaines de la philosophie, de la théologie et de la médecine, toutes sciences enseignées à l’université. Le premier livre en hébreu fut imprimé non loin du cœur de Venise…

De la création du ghetto au bannissement des Juifs

Au XVIe siècle, Venise eut une attitude des plus ambiguës envers les communautés qui vivaient dans la cité. Il s’agissait pour elle de contrôler tout en protégeant… Un bon exemple de l’expression de cette double volonté est la conduite adoptée vis-à-vis des Juifs. Les autorités de Venise distinguaient trois sortes de Juifs : les “Allemands”, les Levantins et les Ponantins. Les Levantins, originaires de Constantinople, de “Romanie” ou de Crète, bénéficiaient des droits réservés aux étrangers — en particulier le droit de pratiquer le commerce international.

Pour les “Allemands” et les “Italiens” — réfugiés originaires d’autres régions de la péninsule –, le traitement était très dur. C’est à leur intention que fut créé le “ghetto”. Il leur était interdit de prendre part au commerce international. Les seules activités tolérées étaient l’usure… et le métier de chiffonnier.

La nuit et à l’occasion des fêtes, les portes du ghetto étaient fermées. Rares, cependant, furent les violences physiques. Les réactions antisémites survinrent avec l’arrivée des marranes d’Espagne et du Portugal. 
Leur rôle dans les villes d’Alexandrie, de Raguse, d’Ancône ou à Ferrare, quand ils disputèrent, grâce aux Turcs, la suprématie commerciale aux marchands de Venise, fut à l’origine de leur bannissement vers la fin du XVIe siècle. L’un d’entre ces marranes, Joseph Nassi, était même devenu le grand argentier du sultan. On l’accusa d’être l’instigateur de l’occupation de Chypre par les Ottomans.

Le XVIIIe, siècle du crépuscule

Une nouvelle menace se faisait jour par le nord-est : l’Autriche. Venise devait la combattre en 1617, durant la guerre de Gradisca, quand les Habsbourg armèrent les Uscocchi (les peuples de Bosnie et de Dalmatie) qui, après la signature de la paix, préférèrent la protection de Vienne à celle de Venise.

Au tout début du XVIIIe siècle, Venise fut définitivement chassée de la mer Égée : la Crète fut perdue en 1669 et le Péloponèse (la Morée) en 1718.

En 1797, Bonaparte met un point final aux mille ans d’indépendance de Venise et, en 1866, la cité rejoint le tout nouveau royaume d’Italie.

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