The Criminal Genius of Caravaggio

In one of the last pictures he ever painted, a grim and startling “Resurrection” altarpiece, Caravaggio showed a scrawny, bedraggled Jesus Christ slipping out of the tomb and making off alone by night, “like a criminal escaping from his guards,” in the words of an 18th-century Frenchman. Shock was the conventional response to this painting (eventually destroyed by earthquake, along with the church where it hung). The artist himself was on the run at the time, wanted for murder and so jittery that he slept in his clothes with a dagger always at hand. “Whatever he set out to paint,” Andrew Graham-Dixon writes in his gripping biography, “he always ended up painting himself.”

Just over a decade earlier Caravaggio had painted Medusa, the Gorgon with snakes for hair who turned all who saw her to stone. He gave her staring eyes and a contorted mouth, apparently painted from his own reflection in a circular mirror. A sackful of water snakes from the Tiber modeled for the glistening, coiled and writhing plaits of her hair. It is an electrifying image of the artist in the concentrated act of catching and freezing a moment in time: “The painter takes on her role and in doing so claims for himself her dark powers of enchantment. . . . Her magic is his magic, a petrifying art.”

This reckless mix of myth with unadulterated realism stunned and appalled Caravaggio’s contemporaries. Caught at the turn of the 17th century between an increasingly degenerate Mannerism and the sumptuosity of nascent Baroque, he was a practicing modernist more than 300 years ahead of his time. Under constant attack in his day, disparaged, downgraded and all but forgotten after his death, his work had to wait until the second half of the last century to come into its own.

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Tags: Caravaggio, art, painting

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