Caravaggio, the great master

Michelangelo Merisi – known by the name Caravaggio, his birthplace – lived a short, adventurous life that came to a tragic and lonely end when the artist was just 37 years old. After years of wandering from Rome to Naples and then to Malta out of fear he would be captured for a crime he had committed in Rome, he died from illness and exhaustion a few days after the pope pardoned him. Fate turned its back on Caravaggio repeatedly, but it had also offered him great fame and such reputation that artists both in his lifetime and well afterwards built their entire careers on trying to replicate something of the great master’s unique style. It was a style that revolutionized religious painting by bringing it close to the human drama and the life of ordinary people. Caravaggio, the great naturalist and the virtuoso of chiaroscuro (a light and shading technique), overturned the conventions of Baroque painting. His art invited controversy but also great admiration by the aristocracy and some of the period’s most important patrons. The intense effect of Caravaggio’s art on generations of artists is the subject of the exhibition «Caravaggio and the 17th Century,» currently on show at the Museum of Cycladic Art. Held in collaboration with the Italian Embassy and organized in the context of the Museum of Cycladic Art’s 20th anniversary, the exhibition includes three works by Caravaggio and numerous paintings by the so-called Caravaggisti – artists that followed in the master’s footsteps. The most monumental work in the exhibition is Caravaggio’s «The Raising of Lazarus,» which the artist made in Messina around 1609 on a commission by the Milanese merchant Giovanni Battista de Lazzari. It is one of Caravaggio’s latest works, dating from Caravaggio’s expulsion from the Order of the Knights of Malta and his flight to Sicily, Syracuse and Messina and then to Naples. «The Raising of Lazarus» shows Caravaggio’s distinctive ability for capturing a story’s vividness of action and freezing its highest dramatic moment. The painting records the miracle as it unfolds, not the scene before or after Lazarus’s resurrection. The glowing, warm light that comes from an unknown «metaphysical» source from the left streaks from the hand of Christ to the body of Lazarus. It is the symbolic metaphor of life’s energy, made all the more dramatic against the dark, cave-like background. In most of his late paintings, Caravaggio painted large, dark, looming spaces perhaps as an allusion to the human existential, inescapable drama. All of Caravaggio’s works are mirrors of reality, not allegories or idealized depiction of religious scenes. That is what likely separated his work from the more classical style of Annibale Caracci, one of his greatest rivals at the time. For some, his realism was too vulgar. For others it was an expression of the artist’s talent for capturing truth and psychological intensity. Naturalism caused his art to be repeatedly rejected by the very patrons who commissioned it. An example is «The Death of the Virgin,» the 1606 piece that is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces. The painting caused a stir and was rejected by the Carmelite Order of the Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, on the grounds that Caravaggio had depicted the Madonna with «little decorum» and had moreover used the body of a prostitute as a model. The painting was bought by the Duke of Mantua, Vincenzo I Gonzaga, on the advice of Rubens, who praised the painting for its skill and its imagination. «Mary Magdalene,» a work from 1605-06 and one of the three paintings in the exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art, was most probably a study for the infamous painting. Caravaggio painted from real life, and many of his early paintings drew attention to sensuality and the physical aspect of life. His famous paintings of «Bacchus,» «The Lute Player» and «The Fortune Teller» offer earthier aspects of his art. «Saint John the Baptist,» dated from the first quarter of the 17th century and included in the Athens exhibition, seems to stem from that tradition. The painting (at some point considered to be a copy) shows Saint John the Baptist as a young man, holding the ram. It is remarkable for the depiction of light and the velvet-like texture of the human flesh. The Caravaggisti Caravaggio was raised in Milan but earned his reputation in Rome, where he settled before he turned 20. He was only 24 when he was commissioned to paint the life of Saint Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. His work incited violent criticism but also admiration, prompting the trend of caravaggismo (or caravaggism) throughout Europe. The Museum of Cycladic Art includes 11 works (all from the Banca Carime collection) by so-called Caravaggisti. In some the influence of Caravaggio is more obvious than in others. The handling of light and the dark background in the «Holy Family» by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo or «Ecce Homo» by the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera evoke the glowing light that made Caravaggio’s paintings so famous. «Saint Peter Healing the Cripple» ascribed to Dirck van Barburen seems modelled after Caravaggio’s realistic naturalism. But the drama and vividness in Caravaggio’s art surpasses all other efforts to capture his style. The exhibition at the Museum of Cycladic Art is a tribute to his unsurpassed talent, a talent that gave him a tumultuous life but earned him a unique place in history. «Caravaggio and the 17th Century» at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka, Kolonaki, tel 210.722.8321) through June 30. Edison is the sponsor. A 35-minute documentary on the life of Caravaggio will be screened. On Wednesdays the museum is open until 8 p.m.