Progression of Art
Self-Portrait as Bacchus/Sick Bacchus
It is probable that Caravaggio executed this self-portrait whilst in the employment of frescoist Giuseppe Cesari and the painting's carefully worked still life elements demonstrates the influence of Cesari's tutelage. Caravaggio's 17th-century biographer Giovanni Baglione identifies this painting as one of a group of the artist's early self-portraits painted with the aid of a convex mirror, a contention supported by the figure's awkward pose, as if turned to ensure better visibility in the mirror surface. The image may have been a 'cabinet piece' but was not, as far as is known, a commissioned work.
The title Sick Bacchus, a seemingly apt title for the subject's pallor and dark, hooded eyes, can be attributed to art historian Roberto Longhi, who believed that the artist painted it after he was discharged from the hospital, following an incident in which the artist was kicked by a horse and sustained severe injuries. Alternatively, the image's greenish coloration might simply be ascribed to a nighttime setting appropriate for the bacchanalia which was about to ensue. Bacchus was a fitting alter-ego for Caravaggio as he was the deity of wine, theater, ritualized displays of ecstasy and was synonymous with inspiration and destruction. The portrait, however, differs from traditional representations of Bacchus where he is depicted in the midst of unbridled celebration, often in a verdant landscape. Caravaggio's image adheres to the conventions of many of the artist's other works, presenting the mythological figure in a sparse interior. In addition, the artist's pallor and sedentary pose suggest not a deity in his prime, celebrating the virtues of wine and festivity, but rather the consequences of over-indulgence. Indeed, the ivy leaves encircling the artist's head have started to wither, a few of the grapes in his hands have begun to shrivel, and the two lush apricots in the painting's foreground betray the beginning brown spots of rot.
Cindy Sherman later famously reinterpreted this painting, posing herself as Caravaggio's Bacchus, in her 1990 photograph Untitled #224 (after Caravaggio's Bacchus).
Oil on canvas - Galleria Borghese, Rome
Boy Bitten by a Lizard
This work is one of two paintings representing the same subject matter; the other painting is in the Roberto Longhi Foundation in Florence. Here, a young boy, an example of the tousled, curly-haired youth who populated many of Caravaggio's early secular pieces, recoils in pain and surprise after having reached for one of the fruits on the table only to be bitten by a lizard, concealed among the pile of cherries. Though Caravaggio condemned Classical statuary, the boy's expression may have its root in the expression of horror found in the statue of Laocoön and His Sons, and the lizard is reminiscent of the reptile portrayed in the ancient Roman sculpture Lizard Apollo, which would have been in Rome in Caravaggio's time.
On the table, Caravaggio demonstrates his skill rendering the play of light over and through different textures. In keeping with Caravaggio's wider style, the boy exists in a nondescript, timeless interior, with blank walls punctuated only by a stark, diagonal light source originating from the upper left, and outside the frame of the painting. This heightens the intense expression of the piece, as it highlights the boy's bare right shoulder, raised as he recoils from the bite; his furrowed brow and mouth open in a gasp. The work is notable in large part for its striking sexual subtext. In the Italian street slang of Caravaggio's time, bitten fingers represented a wounded phallus, and the artist's inclusion of jasmine, a traditional symbol of sexual desire, in combination with the lizard lurking beneath the cherries and apples, each signifiers of temptation, suggests that the painting illustrates the perils of indulging in sexual appetites.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
The Musicians (Concert of Youths)
This work is an example of the Venetian pictorial genre of a 'concert' picture, exemplified by Titian's earlier 1510 work, The Pastoral Concert, in which artists celebrated the performance of music. This image, however, subverts the genre in a number of ways challenging traditional readings of it - it depicts a rehearsal rather than a concert and the inclusion of the classical clothing of the musicians and a winged cupid in the upper left of the image signals a symbolic intent probably linking music, love and wine (represented by the grapes in the cupid's hand).
The figures crowding the image seem to have been drawn separately and added to the composition. The central musician has been identified as Caravaggio's companion Mario Minniti and the other figure facing the viewer is possibly a self-portrait. The musicians are rehearsing madrigals and the lute player in the center is transported by the music, his wet eyes and dreamy expression suggesting sadness and lost love. The inclusion of a violin in the foreground indicates the presence of another musician. Caravaggio's patron, Cardinal del Monte, for whom this work was commissioned, was interested in music and he and his friends tutored musicians and encouraged musical experimentation. The crowded space of The Musicians may invoke the musical environment found in del Monte's household.
Oil on canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This painting depicts Medusa, the Gorgon monster of Greek myth whose hair was made of snakes and whose gaze turned viewers into stone. Medusa was finally defeated by the hero Perseus who beheaded her using the reflection in his shield as a guide. Caravaggio depicts Medusa taking her final breath, immediately after the moment of her beheading. Unusually the image is painted on a circular canvas stretched over a convex wood backing. This mimics the shape of Perseus' shield and depicts the reflection of Medusa's final moments in its polished surface. It also references the practice of drawing Medusa on shields when going into battle to demonstrate victory over huge odds.
It is thought that Caravaggio used himself as the model for the image and as a self-portrait, Medusa is a good example of the artist's experimentation with gender and androgyny. In keeping with Caravaggio's interest in representing the world as it appeared and drawing from life, he used live snakes, common water snakes native to the Tiber River, to model Medusa's writhing vipers. The green of these and that of the background contrasts strongly with the red blood of the decapitated head highlighting the gory and visceral nature of the image. The painting was sent by the artist's patron, Cardinal del Monte, to Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, as a gift, and was well-received by the Medici family who put it on prominent display.
Oil on canvas mounted on wood - Florence, Uffizi
The Calling of St. Matthew
This image is from Caravaggio's first major public works commission, to create paintings for the lateral wall of the Contarelli Chapel in the Roman church San Luigi dei Francesi. It has two companion pieces depicting other scenes from St. Matthew's life, including The Martyrdom of St. Matthew. Here, Caravaggio depicts a moment from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Christ, accompanied by St. Peter, beckons to the tax collector Matthew to join him as a follower. The person of Matthew has been variously identified. Most interpretations cite the bearded, central figure to be Matthew, as this figure's gesture, a hand with an extended finger pointing towards his chest seems to ask "who me?". Others have suggested that Matthew is the younger man with bowed head at the end of the table and this may be intentionally ambiguous. Biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon attributes a political meaning to this composition. Completed around 1600, the year the French king Henri IV married Marie de'Medici, Graham-Dixon explains St. Matthew's slow rousing from "spiritual slumber by the coming of Christ" as an allusion to the French king's conversion.
This painting is a notable example of two of the artist's compositional traits: his depictions of holy figures in the guise of modern-day Romans, and his unique use of light. The figures around the table are dressed as members of the early-17th-century middle classes and Jesus and St. Peter are more simply clothed and barefoot, the faces are realistic and non-idealized. The only iconographic nod to the holy context of the scene is the faint, foreshortened gold halo above Christ's head, which is partly obscured by the diagonal beam of blinding light. These details caused critics to express dismay at the image and accuse the artist of blasphemy.
Though Caravaggio includes a prominently placed open window in the image, it provides no light; the brightness instead originates outside the picture frame, and is suggested as an otherworldly accompaniment to the divine presences of Christ and St. Peter. Caravaggio used this dramatic light source to integrate the chapel space into the world of the painting. Though its origin is not visible within the picture, the upper right light source was meant to connect to the natural illumination of the chapel itself and was an extension of the light emanating from a window directly above the chapel altar. The artist thus created continuity between the scene of Matthew's calling and the chapel in which it was situated.
Oil on canvas - San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
The Entombment was originally painted for the Oratorian church in Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella. The scene shows mourners carrying Christ's body to its burial place, with John the Evangelist in a red cloak supporting Christ's torso, and Nicodemus carrying Christ's legs. A distraught Mary of Clopas, a weeping Mary Magdalene, and a bowed Virgin Mary accompany Christ to his burial. As in his other work the figures are presented with a realism that belies their religious significance and this is enhanced the red and brown tones of the image (representative of Caravaggio's palette in this period) which further serve to highlight the earthy normality of the participants. It is plausible that the composition was inspired by Michelangelo's 15th-century Pietá in St. Peter's Basilica as Christ's limp body, dangling arm and foreshortened chest and head echo the pose of Christ as seen from the front of the sculpture.
The painting is organized along a dramatic diagonal, with figures aligned in a descent from the top right of the picture to the lower left corner. Each person illustrates a progression of emotion commensurate with their position in the painting. The outstretched arms and extended palms of Mary of Clopas occupies the apex of the diagonal and suggests the initial reaction of disbelief and despair at Christ's execution. The composition then proceeds downwards to a weeping Mary Magdalene, her face concealed from the viewer; to the resigned, bowed head of the Virgin Mary; to Nicodemus, struggling under Christ's weight. He turns his face to the viewer as if to ask "what next?". The question is answered by John the Evangelist who focuses on the example of Christ himself, whose expression of serenity, peace, and acceptance of death completes the painting's emotional arc. The painting was designed to hang above an altar and the stone tomb in the image echoes the shape and appearance of the altar. Consequently, Caravaggio extends the scene of burial into the space of the worshippers and the frontal light source beyond the plane of the painting appears to emanate from the altar itself - a divine light of resurrection animating, and lending hope to the burial scene above.
Oil on canvas - Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City
The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (in situ)
This is Caravaggio's largest work and was painted as an altarpiece for the Oratory of San Giovanni Decollato, annexed to the Church of St. John in Valletta, in Malta. It is widely seen as one of Caravaggio's greatest paintings and may have been his passaggio, a gift customarily given following investiture into the Order of the Knights of Malta. This work is notable as the only piece Caravaggio ever signed. The blood pouring from John's head oozes into the artist's signature as 'Fra Michael Angelo' a centralized signature which, according to art historian Keith Sciberras, denotes the artist's new social status as Michelangelo, Knight of Malta. Scholars, including art historian Herwarth Röttgen, have noted Caravaggio's blood signature as an act of contrition, the artist professing his guilt and admitting his hand in the murder of his friend, the event which precipitated his flight and exile from Rome. Alternatively, David M. Stone argues that the artist's decision to sign the work through St. John's blood should be read as a celebratory gesture, the artist marking his new life in Malta as a Knight and his subsequent newly elevated social status.
As with other works from his Malta period the figures are clustered together leaving large swathes of empty or less populated space above and adjacent to the focus of the action. As a consequence, although the artist imbues each actor with a unique emotion or response, individuality is subsumed to the collective illustration of the dramatic moment. The only figure who betrays a strong emotion in the image is the old woman. The artist's tenebrism relegates much of her face to shadow, but Caravaggio highlights her hands, grasping her head in horror. The old woman is the emotional corollary to the placid, deceased St. John, and, by proxy to the stillness of the acts of witness which define the rest of the characters. The old woman's head, clasped in shock and dismay between her hands, represents the viewer's emotional guide to the scene.
Oil on canvas - St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valetta, Malta