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Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio)

1571 - 1610


Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, is an italian painter, born in a small town called Caravaggio, from where he got his name. In his early live he painted lovely fruity pictures, with grapes and apples. He also painted people having fun or playing cards. Caravaggio is mostly known for his dark dramatic pictures.

He learned painting as an apprentice in the art studio of Simone Peterzano. His major break was when he caught the eye of the Cardinal del Monte. His most important work was given by the Cardinal, to decorate the inside of a church in Rome with three pictures of story of Saint Matthew.

He was an extraordinary painter, but he had an uncotrollable tempre of throwing things to waitresses, and fighting with other artists. After one fight, he killed someone and ran to Malta.

There he painted the beheading of John the Baptist. He got into another fight, and injures a priest. He was arrested and thrown into prison. He managed to escape and ask for a pardon from the murder. He arrived in Rome in 1592 young broke and homeless, having already been in trouble with the authorities in Milan. Being a fugitive in trouble with the policie, he was still getting offers to work.

After the murder in Rome, Caravaggio went to Naples – them Malta – then Sicily.After a life on the run, he died alone on a beach in Tuscany. His body disappeared for centuries.

In 2010, his remains were found and they discovered that wasn’t syphilis or malaria, or one of his many enemies that killed him as was thought. Lead poisoning killed him from his paints.

Caravaggio – it would seem- may have quite literally died for his art.


It is impossible to separate Caravaggio the criminal, from Caravaggio the painter of sacred images. Once could not be without the other. He inhabited a world where honour was everything the slightest insult needed to be revenged. And the hair triggered Caravaggio would be forever on the lookout for trouble. Caravaggio broke the rules of art as well as his life.

He worked very fast and was an instinctive and natural painter. Comparing to other painters, he did not do any pencil drawing or preparations, and he did not wait for the paint to dry, he just layered and mixed the paints on the canvas. He was know of creating dramatic stories by using contrast between light and dark, and of using normal, real life people, beautiful models and ugly people too.

In the 16th century the art world in Italy and beyond has seen the High renaissance with its painting devoted to “ bellezza ideale” (ideal beauty), linear perspective and balanced compositions, yield to Mannerism.

Caravaggio’s approach to religious art was shocking and controversial in his time, his work was censored dismissed and criticised. This resulted to a new kind of Christian art. The deepness of his painting made only by his turbulent lifestyle.

Religious art had lost its way, and artist were being asked to produce emotionally engaging and intense works, accessible and realistic enough to inspire the masses. Caravaggio understood the masses more than most.

He would examine at the dark aspect of the Christian story and include its more corrupt and disagreeable side. Caravaggio’s art would represent the world as it is, and not how it should be. He accentuated the poverty and common humanity of Christ and his followers, by using ordinary working people as his models. Some of them considered to be the scum of the city, street workers, prostitutes, beggars and rent boys. He would scandalize Rome by portraying the Virgin Mary with dirty feet, Saint Peter as a terrified and bewildered old man. The church has asked for realism and Caravaggio would give it to them.

~The calling of St Matthew~

The calling of St Matthew is a complex, overly sophisticated painting that emphasized the artists talents and impulses. Caravaggio uses the shaft of light to put a real spotlight on Matthew. Jesus is standing in the shadow. He points out Matthew, who points at himself questioning if he is walking to him. To the left of him, 2 fellow money man, don’t even realise the divine present has arrived, consumed by their worldly manners. On the right are 2 young man startled on opposite direction, one leaning toward, and one away , amplifying Matthews moment of indecision. The light is intensely dramatic play of light and shadow called Chiaroscuro or tenebrism, the harsh light coming from the upper light of the canvas. The “Luce Divina” (Divine illumination) points out Matthew more forcefully than Jesus does, but not in an unrealistic way.

The strange story of betrayal by a kiss is a subject that has fascinated Italians for centuries. The subject had been painted by hundreds of artists, but never with such a brutal honesty. His paintings are taking place just inches from our face. It takes place at night-time, but his night time is a world where violence hides in shadows.

Just darkness, only the moonlight off screen lights the scene- from left to right, the preferred direction of light Caravaggio used. It is almost like a spotlight on Jesus, and Judas and suggest divine light.

Although the man at the far side is holding a lantern, it is in reality an ineffective source.

Then the light reflected in the armour, seems to be coming from the viewer’s direction. Caravaggio emphasizes Christ’s humanity, rather than his divinity as the lord.

In the picture are 7 men (John, Jesus, a soldier, another soldier, a lamp bearer, and behind him another soldier), but if we lighten up the picture, we can make put traces of lances, suggesting further soldiers.

John (wearing red and green) being pulled back by his cloak, which looks like a halo over Christ. The red could symbolize “martyrdom” or the blood of Christ. Their faces are filled with emotions. We see very little of any of the soldiers’ features, they are faceless as well as ruthless.

The Roman officer’s highly polished metal clad arm is placed in the very centre of the canvas. The harsh black metal serves as a powerful contrast with the vulnerable of the defenceless Christ. The soldier’s arm, along with the swirling drapery of John’s cloak forms a picture within a picture, emphasizing the main story. He has done this many times.

He paints himself several times in his painting . There are numerous theories as to why he places himself so prominently in the picture, but it is a bit of narcissism. The lamp he holds is not strong enough to light the whole scene, but symbolically, the lamp’s light falls in his own right hand, the instruments on his genius. He paints himself into the scene, rushing in with the grads, eager to witness the betray, the arrest of Jesus. He holds a lantern, signifying the power of the artist to illuminate the stories that mean the most to us. To make the m personal.


Caravaggio’s use of Tenebrism or chiaroscuro, violent contrast, require unusual working practices he worked in a dark room using high lamps to direct the light. He was once taken to court for knocking a hole in the ceiling of his apartment to let a bit of light through.

The ground coat has a huge influence on the finished work. Unlike most artists who use a mid-tone ground Caravaggio used a very dark red brown base. Artists were warmed that painting light tones on dark- the opposite from how most artists work – would muddy the colours.

But Caravaggio used the ground to build up shadows and show the dramatic contrast of contrast of light and shade. Infrared scans show us that unusually, he did not do preliminary sketches, but painted straight onto the canvas, with minimal preparations. There are no drawings in existence by Caravaggio.

He worked with live studio models, and would plot their position directly onto the canvas, marking the primer coat with a point of the brush to make a general outline. Once he had this as his guide, he reposed his models in the same position as before when he needed it.

He create profoundly spiritual work. They have an overwhelming truthfulness that appeals to us on a deep emotional level. Caravaggio rejected the dominant tradition of Italian paintings and painted Christian scenes as if they were taking place right here, right now.

He died at 36.



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