Saturday, April 07, 2012

Caravaggio and Lent

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600. Click on image to enlarge. Image (and a lengthy discussion of the painting) found here.

With Good Friday being last night and Easter to come tomorrow and a gloomy sky accompanying Scruffy and me this morning, I found myself thinking about Lent's demand of us that we take its questions as serious, inevitable ones. Just before Ash Wednesday this year, I half-seriously said to someone that Lent is a church season that anyone, regardless of belief, could participate in. Perhaps this is something of an overstatement, since Lent supplies an answer to those questions that won't be to many non-Christians' liking (and, perhaps, not even really to the liking of some Christians), but its starting place--You are mortal--and its question--What will you do with that fact?--are, there's no debating, unavoidable ones.

This is why I've placed Caravaggio's great painting at the beginning of this post. As I thought this morning about what if anything I've learned during this season, this image and John Berger's comments about it came to mind. The power of this painting and Caravaggio's other religious art is that it creates, in me at least, a sense that I too am being called but, really, to who knows what? Nor does Caravaggio pretty up what that calling can lead to: have a look, for example, at The Crucifixion of St. Peter with its strong sense of arrested motion, its figures' limbs arranged like spokes in a wheel moving inexorably forward--as though Peter's long-ago choice to be a disciple has even, before this moment, also in that same past obligated his executioners to be where they are, now.

I do not know if Caravaggio ever painted Jesus' resurrection. It would be fitting, somehow, if he had not. (The closest we get, so far as I can determine, are The Incredulity of St. Thomas and his two versions of the supper at Emmaus.) Christ's resurrection, Christians believe, is a prefigurement of our own rescue from death. But it is not yet lived experience. Caravaggio, at his most compelling, painted what he knew.

In this excerpt from his essay "Caravaggio: A Contemporary View," we have Berger discussing Caravaggio's painting within the context of Berger's understanding of him as a champion of the underclass--which, by the way, I think it safe to say Jesus was and is, too--certainly, that is an idea I have found myself returning to many times this Lent. At any rate, what follows is one of my favorite discussions of one of my favorite paintings. Easter is coming, in more ways than one; there will be time aplenty for that. For me today, though, it feels right to be ending Lent on this note.

Once I was asked to name my favourite painter. I hesitated, searching for the least knowing, most truthful answer. 'Caravaggio'. There are nobler painters and painters of greater breadth of vision. There are painters I admire more and who are more admirable. But there is none, so it seems - for the answer came unpremeditated - to whom I feel closer.

The few canvases from my own incomparably modest life as a painter, which I would like to see again, are those I painted in the late 40s of the streets of Livorno. This city was then war-scarred and poor, and it was there that I first began to learn something about the ingenuity of the dispossessed. It was there too that I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a life-long aversion.

The complicity I feel with Caravaggio began, I think, during that time in Livorno. He was the first painter of life as experienced by the popolaccio, the people of the back streets, les sans-culottes, the lumpenproletariat, the lower orders, those of the lower depths, the underworld. Interestingly enough, there is no word in any traditional European language which does not either denigrate or patronise the urban poor it is naming. That is power.

Following Caravaggio up to the present day, other painters - Brower, Ostade, Hogarth, Goya, Gericault, Gultuso - have painted pictures of the same social milieu. But all of them - however great - were genre pictures, painted in order to show others how the less fortunate or the more dangerous lived. With Caravaggio, however, it was not a question of presenting scenes but of seeing itself. He does not depict the underworld for others: his vision is one that he shares with it.


His chiaroscuro allowed him to banish daylight. Shadows, he felt, offered shelter as can four walls and a roof. Whatever and wherever he painted he really painted interiors. Sometimes - for 'The Flight into Egypt' or one of his beloved John the Baptists - he was obliged to include a landscape in the background. But these landscapes are like rugs or drapes hung up on a line across an inner courtyard. He only felt at home - no, that he felt nowhere - he only felt relatively at ease inside.

His darkness smells of candles, over-ripe melons, damp washing waiting to be hung out the next day: it is the darkness of stairwells, gambling corners, cheap lodgings, sudden encounters. And the promise is not in what will flare against it, but in the darkness itself. The shelter it offers is only relative, for the chiaroscuro reveals violence, suffering, longing, mortality, but at least it reveals them intimately. What has been banished, along with the daylight, are distance and solitude - and both these are feared by the underworld.

Those who live precariously and are habitually crowded together develop a phobia about open spaces which transforms their frustrating lack of space and privacy into something reassuring. He shared those fears.

'The Calling of St. Matthew' depicts five men sitting round their usual table, telling stories, gossiping, boasting of what one day they will do, counting money. The room is dimly lit. Suddenly the door is flung open. The two figures who enter are still part of the violent noise and light of the invasion. (Berenson wrote that Christ comes in like a police inspector to make an arrest.)

Two of Matthew's colleagues refuse to look up, the other two younger ones stare at the strangers with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. Why is he proposing something so mad? Who's protecting him, the thin one who does all the talking? And Matthew, the tax-collector with a shifty conscience which has made him more unreasonable than most of his colleagues, points at himself and asks: is it really I who must go? Is it really I?

How many thousands of decisions to leave have resembled Christ's hand here! The hand is hold [sic] out towards the one who has to decide, yet it is ungraspable because so fluid. It orders the way, yet offers no direct support. Matthew will get up and follow the thin stranger from the room, down the narrow streets, out of the district. He will write his gospel, he will travel to Ethiopia and the South Caspian and Persia. Probably he will be murdered.

And behind the drama of this moment of decision is a window, giving onto the outside world. In painting, up to then, windows were treated either as sources of light, or as frames framing nature or an exemplary event outside. Not so this window. No light enters. The window is opaque. We see nothing. Mercifully we see nothing because what is outside is threatening. It is a window through which only the worst news can come; distance and solitude.

[UPDATE: If, however, someone would like some Easter reading to lighten the shadows, here is something from a while back that I'm still happy with.]


R. Sherman said...

Sorry I missed this Saturday.
I love Caravaggio, as he brings the moment portrayed into crisp focus. I can imagine a Christian artist having a tough time bring that sort of skill to the Resurrection without exposing himself, at that time, to mumblings about blaspheme. The "modern" accoutrement to the characters would've been scandalous enough, I think.

Anyway, I agree that Lent is about considering our mortality generally, and more specifically, the human condition. Such a contemplation should lead to introspection, self-sacrifice and repentance of those things which God places in front of our consciences.

There certainly is a "calling out" which is part of that process. After all, not everyone chooses the ashes and engages of forty days of introspection.

It is/should be a spiritual season which leads us to conclusions about where we were, where we are and where we intend to go, both in the here and hereafter.

Anything else, I think, is a waste of time.


John B. said...

Hey there, Randall. Glad to see another Caravaggio fan. Thanks also for your comments.

Re his blaspheming style: He caught enough of that sort of flak as it was--I remember reading that his Virgin of Loreto was heavily criticized because the penitents look so grubby in the presence of the Blessed Mother--one even has no shoes and dirty feet! Caravaggio's response: Well, who else would have been visiting the Holy Family at that point in the life of Jesus?

Caravaggio did paint a resurrection painting, though not THE resurrection: a Raising of Lazarus that must be seen to be believed. I haven't really looked at it closely--I think I'm afraid of it.