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Drama and Devotion - to my beloved Caravaggio

Beyond Caravaggio was exhibited in the UK to explore the influence of Caravaggio on the art of his Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch and Spanish followers. This collaboration between Britain’s three National Galleries took place between 2016-17.

Now the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia has an exhibition of paintings on loan from Bob Jones University by Caravaggio-inspired artists. The Drama and Devotion in Baroque Rome Exhibition will continue from Jul 2019—May 2020.

Consider how Michelangelo Merisi da Car­av­aggio (1571–1610)’s revol­ut­ion­ary style attracted artists from across Europe The works presented, from Bob Jones University, celebrate how Caravaggio shaped the Italian Baroque and gained followers. One of the main highlights is a Crucifixion by Peter Paul Rubens, who spent 8+ years in Italy.

While the Protestants loathed the cult of images, the Catholic Church keenly embraced art’s religious power. The visual arts, the Catholics argued, played a key role in guiding the Faith­ful. Art was as important as the written and spoken word, or even more so since it was also accessible to the ill­iterate. Religious art had to be unambiguous and powerful. It had to instruct, inspire and to move the Faithful to feel the reality of Christ’s sacrifice, the martyrs’ suffering and the saints’ visions.

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ, c1602
134 x 170cm
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Caravaggio, Crowning with Thorns, c1603
166 x 127 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Church’s emphasis on art’s teaching role prompted experiment­ation with new and more direct means of engaging the viewer. Artists like Caravaggio turned to a powerful and dramatic realism, with bold contrasts of light and dark, and tightly-cropped images that enhanced the physical and emotional immediacy of the story.

Some artists, eg Annibale Carracci, settled on a more Renaissance visual language, inspired by the vibrant palette, id­eal­ised forms and balanced compositions. Oth­ers eg Giov­anni Gaulli produced brave feats of il­l­us­ionism that blurred the boundaries between paint­ing, sculpture & architecture. Thus the Divine became tangible. Whether through shocking real­ism, dynamic move­ment or exuberant ornam­ent­ation, early C17th art was meant to impress. The viewer saw the truth of its message.. via his senses and emotions.

Painters from across Europe flocked to Rome to see Car­av­aggio. They copied his stark contrast of light and dark, powerful realism and dramatic sense of staging. French painters like Val­entin de Boulog­ne, Georges de La Tour, Nicolas Régnier and Simon Vouet, Span­iard Jusepe de Ribera and Dutchmen Hendrick Ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Hon­th­orst all admired Caravaggio’s works.

Ribera (1591-1652)’s paintings of saints (eg St Jerome) and large-scale devotional paintings eg Lamentation over the Dead Christ, reflected his years spent in Rome. Caravaggio’s works encouraged Ribera’s religious presentat­ions. And Ribera, in turn, was cred­it­ed with the spread of the Caravaggesque style to Spain and to Diego Velázquez.

Earlier in 2019, the Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe Exhibition brought 1600-1630 Rome to the Centraal Museum Utrecht. Presenting 70 masterworks until March 2019, Utrecht was the first to display the local artists alongside the above list of Caravaggisti. Carav­aggio’s epic En­tombment of Christ (1602–3 from the Vatican) was the highlight of the Utrecht Exhibition, examining how the Italian baroque painter inspired a generation of artists in Utrecht.

Ironically Caravaggio was very sensitive when it came to matters of artistic origin­ality: he threatened the painters Guido Reni and Giovanni Baglione for copying his style.

Florence’s Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato (21–29th Sept 2019) exhibited an early masterpiece by Guido Reni: Saint Jerome (1606-10). Since its rediscovery and sale at Christie’s in London, the Reni was cleaned to reveal the powerfully expressive figure in all its glory.

During his early years in Rome, Caravaggio completed some of his best-known easel works to sell on the open market. These paint­ings included depictions of themes that were uncommon in Roman art at the time eg rogues and revellers. Followers must have loved Carav­ag­gio’s images of the seedy lowlife of Roman street-life eg Card-sharps (c1594) and The Fortune-teller (1594), or his music-making images eg Musicians (1595) and Lute Player (1596).

Unlike the typical Re­naissance master-follower relationship, Car­av­aggio’s followers had no con­nection with Caravag­gio’s studio, and in some cases they had not even seen his paintings first-hand. Some artists imitated Car­av­ag­gio for only a brief part of their careers while others remained committed to his style model forever.

Italian, Spanish, French and Netherlandish followers loved Caravag­gio’s use of dark shadows to obscure parts of the image. Car­avag­gio’s tenebrism and chiaroscuro, the strong contrast of light and dark, lent drama to his works. By combining theat­rical drama and careful real-life observation, Caravaggio ach­ieved a nat­ur­alism in both religious and secular scenes. This contributed to his wide­spread appeal during the first three decades of the C17th.
Orazio Gentileschi, 1606-7
The Martyrs St Valeriano, St Tiburzio and St Cecilia,
3.5 x 2.2m

In Pietro Paolini’s drink­­ers and revellers in his Al­l­egory of the Senses, he superimposed the dark, solemn tones of Caravaggio’s later religious paintings, on top of Caravaggio’s youthful themes.

Followers could borrow from Caravaggio whichever asp­ects of his style and method that they liked most. Painters like Or­az­io Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia Gent­ileschi, who knew Caravaggio personally, did have direct contact with their hero but their work retained a character all its own. The Gent­ileschis produced more lyrical paintings than did Caravaggio. And in­corp­orating the cold blues, yellows and violets that were notably absent from Caravaggio’s palette, their paintings often reflected local influen­ces.

Nevertheless their work showed a love of Carav­ag­gio’s tenebrism and religious iconography. In St Francis in Ecstasy (1607), Orazio favoured the intimate saint-angel relation­ship seen in Caravaggio’s St Francis. In Judith Beheading Holo­fernes, Artemisia Gentileschi showed the violent struggle of decap­itation emphasised in Caravaggio’s painting. Horror and conviction were both seen in Jud­ith’s face.

Gerard van Honthorst, c1617
Christ before the High Priest,
National Gallery London

Jusepe de Ribera:
St Paul the Hermit, c1638
Baltimore, Walters Art Museum

Other Caravaggisti were also influenced by the artist’s humanising dep­ictions of religious subjects. For instance in Doubting Thomas, Ter Brugghen, Honthorst and Mattias Stomer repro­duced the special half-length figures from Carav­ag­gio’s c1602 painting. In fact these Nor­thern artists pop­ularised Doubting Thom­as imagery in Utrecht then. Carav­aggio’s app­eal during the first decades of the C17th must have been very wide­spread indeed.

Be still, my beating heart!


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