Cultures

Caravaggio’s Last Two Paintings
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
New York City
Through July 9

Review by Pamela A. Lewis

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has reunited two of the final paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, on exceptional loan from the Banca Intesa Sanpaolo in Naples, joins The Denial of Saint Peter, owned by the Met, for the first time since a 2004 exhibition in London and Naples that was devoted to Caravaggio’s late work.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, commissioned by the Genoese nobleman Marcantonio Doria two months before the artist’s death in July 1610, is a bold departure from the artist’s familiar style, by way of its minimalist approach to the subject, as well as in its limited palette. Caravaggio has depicted the legend of the saint who traveled with 11,000 virgins to Cologne, where the chief of the Huns besieging the city fell in love with her. When she rejected him, he killed her with an arrow. The artist has placed the two figures extremely close to one another, heightening their contrasting expressions: Ursula’s perplexity at being shot, and the chief’s, a mixture of rage and guilt. Caravaggio included himself as a spectator in the small group behind the saint, straining to see the scene. The contrasting light and dark serve not only as an artistic device but also as a symbolic allusion to sin and redemption, life and death.

In the smaller and even more technically reductive Denial of Saint Peter, Caravaggio presents the well-known Gospel account of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ. Peter, standing before a fireplace, is accused by a woman speaking to a soldier. The pointing finger of the soldier and the woman’s two pointing fingers, which allude to the three accusations and Peter’s three denials, confirm Caravaggio’s narrative powers.

From police reports, legal depositions, and court transcripts, we know that Caravaggio’s life was often marked by violence. (He murdered a man in 1606.) Despite his growing fame and improving social connections, he cultivated a bad-boy reputation, carried a sword and a dagger, and was always one step ahead of the police. Yet it was his criminal persona, as well as the transgressive atmosphere of early 17th-century Naples and Rome, that imbued many of Caravaggio’s early works with visual power. The theatricality, eroticism (even his other religious works raised eyebrows), and shocking violence the artist often witnessed (and sometimes generated) provide the ingredients of his greatest paintings and define his entire oeuvre. He dared to show saints with dirty feet, half-rotten fruit, angels who seemed more sensuous than seraphic, and Madonnas in whose delicate and virginal features the faces of local prostitutes could be recognized. Whether their subject was sacred or secular, Caravaggio’s paintings bore the gritty, street-smart features of his turbulent life and milieu.

In 1905, the English painter and critic Roger Fry wrote that Caravaggio “was in many senses the first modern artist, the first to proceed not by evolution, but by revolution.” In a career that lasted less than 20 years in which he produced between 80 and 90 canvases, Caravaggio created a different kind of art that had emerged from his new ways of seeing and depicting the subjects of his paintings. Wedged between a waning Mannerism and a burgeoning and assertive Baroque, Caravaggio pioneered startling and original innovations such as live models and a greater narrative realism that at once attracted his fellow artists and repulsed his critics.

Most compelling among Caravaggio’s techniques was his use of chiaroscuro, the dramatic interplay of light and dark, present in masterpieces such as The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), his first public commission, and The Entombment of Christ (1603-04). So distinctive was this feature in the artist’s work that it prompted art critic Gilles Lambert to observe that Caravaggio had put the oscuro in chiaroscuro. Admirers in Italy and in other parts of Europe, who became known as the Caravaggisti, or the Caravaggists, eagerly imitated his style, from which an international Caravaggesque Movement sprang, responding to the growing market for the master’s compositions.

The grand gestures, the vivid colors contrasted by chiaroscuro, and the emphasis on naturalistic depiction that had characterized Caravaggio’s earlier paintings are absent in these last two paintings, however. In addition to the unusual (and unprecedented) economy of color, the artist has used a technique touching on the unfinished (or non finito), as if executed in haste. Naturalism has been supplanted by a heavy psychological presence and a sense of doom, which the artist has imposed by eliminating practically all light and by placing his three-quarter-length subjects close to the foreground. Each subject is the victim of sin, trapped in a place devoid of redeeming light. The viewer looks at the paintings but is also a not-so-innocent bystander.

Information about Caravaggio’s private life has been scanty, the legal paper trail notwithstanding, obliging scholars to construct his biography by deconstructing his early work, by attempting to interpret the facial expressions, gestures, and even that magnificent Caravaggian light and dark to figure out the man behind those extraordinary paintings. Since that 2004 London exhibition, there has been a great deal of information about Caravaggio’s last years, thanks to novelists such as Peter Robb and Francine Prose and by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, writers who have added missing details either through artful imagination or more probing scholarship.

These two splendid works, sensitively displayed with informative but not overbearing wall labels, are Caravaggio’s final and poignant utterances in paint, which some scholars have understood as reflective of his biography. While they tell the timeless stories of their subjects, they illustrate the artist’s sense of life’s tragedy.

Pamela A. Lewis attends St. Thomas Church in New York City and writes on faith and the arts.