Spirituality on display at Caravaggio exhibit

Spirituality on display at Caravaggio exhibit

  • June 22, 2011

OTTAWA - As Caravaggio’s personal life unravelled, his paintings became more deeply spiritual, perhaps due to his need for mercy, says an art historian and expert on the 17th century Italian master.

The more sorrow he experienced, the more spiritual his work became, said University of Vienna art historian Sebastian Schütze at a June 15 preview of the National Art Gallery’s international loan exhibition Caravaggio and His Friends in Rome that will be in Ottawa until Sept. 11.

As the hot-tempered artist became “the bad boy on the run” after having killed someone in a duel, his work became richer and more reflective and less inclined to show off his technical virtuosity Schütze said.

The painting that closes the exhibit, St. Francis contemplating a skull, was painted around the time that the artist fled from Rome, and shows a deep sense of spiritual reflection.

The artist’s short life did not reflect a one-on-one correspondence between a virtuous life and great art, but 400 years after his death at the age of 38 in 1610, Caravaggio remains one of the greatest painters of all time and the most topical of the great masters today, said Schütze.

Caravaggio is also a profoundly Catholic artist, even though he scandalized some of the traditional religious sensibilities at the time and his lifestyle did not correspond with the virtues reflected in his art, Schütze said.

“There are some people who still describe him as this almost heretical painter,” he said. “That historically-speaking, is off topic.”

During his lifetime, he worked for church authorities, most of his time painting one big altar piece after another, he said. But sometimes his innovations shocked religious authorities and he had to redo his commissions.

He broke a number of religious conventions, such as the Renaissance tendency to idealize human subjects, Schütze said. Instead, he brought the divine down to the human level. He did so by painting real human models, with their flaws and physical imperfections. “His saints are not generic saints or idealized people, they looked like real people.”

His use of half-figures and close-up composition, his use of light and his ability to capture the dramatic emotion in a narrative’s decisive moment involved the viewer and bridged the “representational gap” in a new way, he said.

“Some of his innovations were seen right away as spectacular, as new things going in the right direction,” he said. “Others needed more time to adapt to them.”

Schütze said the response was normal for an artist with such a radical approach who was taking things beyond what contemporaries could understand. It also explained why he had such a great impact on later generations.

Some of his models were prostitutes, like the model in his painting of Martha and Mary Magdalene. Caravaggio also made an impact in the emotional insight he brought in retelling biblical stories through his paintings, Schütze said.

He is seen as a great religious, very Catholic painter, he said, even if some of his innovations conflicted with very traditional views in the Church.

“If you look at his paintings what was true around 1600 is as true today,” he said. “I cannot imagine another painter of such spiritual depth telling stories in such an emotional way, and also telling biblical stories in such a way that they are meaningful to us today.”

The paintings are about moral principles and human feelings. “One of the reasons why people love Caravaggio so much 400 years after his death, he has a capacity to make religious history look real, something that we can easily connect with that has meaning for us, not only in artistic terms but in spiritual terms.”

The exhibition provides a unique opportunity for Canadians to see Caravaggio’s paintings on Canadian soil. No Canadian museums or private collections own any of the Italian master’s paintings, said the Gallery’s director Marc Mayer. The 58-picture exhibit includes 12 paintings by Caravaggio, grouped by themes with those of contemporaries or followers who followed his innovations and built on them, creating a unique artistic conversation.

One room is devoted to paintings built on the theme of fortune tellers and card sharps; another around musicians, showing Caravaggio’s work alongside those who took up the same themes and experimented with them in new ways. Their response to Caravaggio’s depiction of saints and Bible stories are grouped together as well. 

The works come from 47 private and public collections in 13 different countries. Some have never been shown publicly before.

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