The Secret Behind Paintings With Dirty Feet

Why Caravaggio’s paintings were rejected by the Christian patrons

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio with special emphasis on the imagery of the feet.

Caravaggio was a famous painter in the 16th century. His chiaroscuro paintings narrated high drama, acute realism, and minute detailing.

But have you ever noticed the dirty feet in Caravaggio’s paintings?

Saint Matthew and the AngelCrucifixion of Saint PeterMadonna of the Rosary, and several others reflects the famous “dirty feet”.

The dirty feet got affixed to his art form, personality, and portrayed the catholic pauperism beliefs that were opposed by the Catholic Reformation.

Caravaggio’s early life and initial paintings

The baroque painter was born in Milan where he was baptized. His childhood and education were spent in catholic pauperism beliefs in the spirit of St. Charles Borromeo.

He did his initial training under Simone Peterzano and left for Rome from Milan in 1592.

Caravaggio’s naturalistic and unorthodox painting skills caught eyeballs of the Roman Catholic patrons during the counter-reformation in Rome.

The Boy Bitten by a Lizard in the National Gallery London was painted by him during his beginnings in Rome. This painting revealed the authenticity and realism; he painted the model with dirty fingernails and gave surmountable importance to the detailing of the inanimate objects like the sprig of jasmine inside the glass vase.

Caravaggio’s Paintings with Dirty Feet

Saint Matthew and the Angel

Left: Saint Matthew and the Angel — Right: The Inspiration of Saint Matthew
Note the naked feet and impoverished dressing in the left image.

In 1599, he was contracted by the Contarelli Chapel to decorate the Church with the paintings of the Evangelist Saint Matthew.

His first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected by the Church patrons.

The dirty feet of the Saint and impoverished nature did not match the idealization of their beloved Saint Matthew. The Church leaders found it really crude and could not see the image of a poor peasant depicting as their Evangelist.

And so, he had to paint the second version The Inspiration of Saint Matthew depicting a more glorified and reverent image of the master that was accepted by the Church officials.

The Crucifixion of Peter

The crucifixion of Saint Peter. Note highlighted are the sections with dirty feet.

When Peter was crucified, he asked to be turned upside down to be the opposite of Jesus’ crucifixion. This painting too depicted the dirty feet of the man pushing up the cross.

Why the paintings were rejected by Church

The Counter-Reformation Popes in Rome opposed the ideology of pauperism. The Church patrons thought that all the poor; and especially the beggars, held no interest in the church reforms and were considered as ‘ignorant of Christian truth’.

According to them, the poor people were seen as sinners or criminals.

Therefore, the Church outrightly rejected paintings with dirty feet by Caravaggio at first look and wanted to promote more glorified images of their Saints.

Caravaggio’s school of thought was inspired by pauperism. And, so the naked and dirty feet of Caravaggio’s saints were the feet of those who believed that Jesus, the son of God was “made man” and lived in poverty.

His compositions were being asked to alter by the Church to suit the desires of the patrons during that era. But Caravaggio’s sense of authenticity, the rawness of human existence is still perfectly preserved in the Augustinian churches of Rome

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The Caravaggio Influence

How the renegade Italian artist revolutionised image making forever

The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Caravaggio was an artist who divided opinions during his own lifetime. His method of presenting human figures with realistic and often rugged features met with fierce criticism.

Moreover, the stories we know of his life — including tales of brawling, debt and murder — have come to shape readings of his art as dramatic, untamed and impassioned. As such, his paintings seem to echo his reputation as an unflinching and controversial character.

Yet despite the defiant air with which he lived his life, Caravaggio became a hugely influential force on the succeeding generations of artists and has become one of the most revered painters in Western art.

Caravaggio’s challenge

Caravaggio developed his artistic reputation in Rome, where moved from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years became notorious for his distinctively unpretentious style.

Painting in Italy at the time had evolved from the High Renaissance style exemplified by the “perfect” forms of Michelangelo into a style of painting that took stylisation and exaggeration as a norm, known in art history as Mannerism.

The significance of Caravaggio in the story of art lies in his rejection of Mannerist artificiality and self-conscious “facility” — most especially the search for a kind of effortless grace in depicting the human form.

Against this grain, Caravaggio painted humans without pretence: his figures are weighty, corpulent, earthy and palpable. His methods often involved painting directly on canvas without prior preparation, and he would sometimes cover entire paintings with new compositions if he wasn’t happy the first time.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil and tempera on canvas. 141 × 196.2 cm. National Gallery, London, UK

Take The Supper at Emmaus, painted by Caravaggio in 1601. 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. The two companions were not aware before, but nowthey see.

On their faces and in their body language we see the sudden awareness of Christ’s identity. This transformation is the central conceit of the painting and its dramatic intention.

Caravaggio dared to present the Biblical story at a dinner table that was clearly contemporary and familiar, using ordinary men as models with worn clothes and wrinkled features, and eschewing any attempt at idealisation.

His tendency to show apostles as dirty and unkempt was a point of criticism often levelled by those who felt such religious subjects required a more hallowed approach. Yet his technique was quickly seized upon by other artists who were impressed by the gravity and directness of his painting style.

Darkness prevailing

Caravaggio became known for a technique of extreme chiaroscuro: that is, a heavy use of shadows and light to add dramatic depth to his scenes. This leaning towards shadowy, and sometimes brooding depictions was another break with the Mannerist tradition, which as the 16th century progressed had moved towards a lighter, more pastel-toned colour palette.

One of the clearest ways we can see this influence is through Caravaggio’s frequent creation of abstract settings for his paintings. That is to say, the way he often placed his scenes against a dark background that contained little or no hint of a location.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 107 × 146 cm. Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany

A painting like The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows the moment when Thomas the Apostle declared he would not believe in Christ’s resurrection unless he could “put my hand into his side”, is set against an entirely black background. All of the drama is at the front of the painting, where the key elements such as faces and hands are highlighted against the backdrop.

The term for this style is tenebrism, a style of painting characterised by the use of light foregrounds contrasted against the background. The term is derived from the Italian “tenebroso” meaning “darkened” or “obscured.”

Christ Displaying His Wounds (c. 1630) by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Oil on canvas. 132.3 × 97.8 cm. Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Scotland, UK

Now look at this painting, Christ Displaying His Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli. Galli was a member of the Caravaggisti — followers of Caravaggio who used his dramatic techniques as a basis for their own work.

In a similar mode to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, this painting shows a pale-skinned Jesus in a three-quarter view. The lower half of his body is cloaked in a white linen cloth, which is draped over his left arm and wrapped around his waist in rich folds.

There is much of Caravaggio in this work. The almost pitch-black background, the invisible light source that illuminates little but the main subject of the work, gives a distinct sense of the figure of Christ emerging from the shadows with the exact place or time of day impossible to determine.

Influence beyond Italy

Numerous artists beyond the borders of Italy were also captivated by the new stylistic developments occurring in Italy which Caravaggio had spearheaded.

Martyrdom of Saint Andrew (1628) by Jusepe de Ribera. Oil on canvas. 209 × 183 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera, after travelling to Rome and Naples in the first quarter of the 17th century, adopted many of the techniques that Caravaggio mastered.

Indeed, artists from across Europe gravitated to Rome to explore and share in the various aspects of chiaroscuro and tenebrism that Caravaggio had pioneered.

Left: Peter Paul Rubens’ copy of Entombment of Christ (1612-1614). Oil on oak wood. 88.3 × 66.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Canada. Right: The Entombment of Christ (c.1603) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 300 × 203 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

Adam Elsheimer from Germany was one such artist. Another was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who made his way to Italy in the early 1600s. Painters like Titian and Tintoretto were instrumental in Rubens’ development, as was Caravaggio, whose Entombment of ChristRubens went on to produce a copy of.

Drama uncensored

Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 145 × 195 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy

Caravaggio was admired — and sometimes also condemned — for the intense and unsettling realism of his work. He deliberately sought to create heightened drama in his scenes, utilising the vivid language of highlights and shadow to sharpen the details of gestures or facial expressions.

Take a work like Judith Beheading Holofernes(c.1599). Prior to Caravaggio, artists tended to show Judith holding or carrying the head of Holofernes after the slaying. 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.

Yet for Caravaggio, the bloody reality was of more obvious interest. In his work he chose to show the actual moment of the assassination.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi. Oil on canvas. 146.5 × 108 cm. Uffizi, Florence

Some two decades later, deeply influenced by Caravaggio, Artemisia Gentileschi created her own version of the scene, perhaps the most macabre depiction of the story ever painted.

In this work, Gentileschi gives us the most direct view possible, allowing us to witness the bloody force of the sword along with fierce attention paid to the harsh truthfulness of the slaying.

Caravaggio’s critics would later claim that his treatments of important Biblical subjects were disrespectful and indecent. But this did not stop his influence from extending to the generation of Baroque painters who followed him.

Few other artists of the era had such a mastery of narrative drama and physical gesture, and fewer still had the power to inspire and influence later artistic generations as far as the Romantics and Modernists.

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