Art Philosophy - Caravaggio - Darkness and Light

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

One of the most sensitive and beautifully lit figures in all of 16th/17th century art, is the Jesus figure in Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus".

At the centre of our picture, he is clothed in red and white - a symbol of both the blood of crucifixion, and the grace of resurrection. And, though the actual narrative being depicted in this picture is of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in the days after his death on the cross - Caravaggio's Christ is a youthful, thoughtful, and fair skinned young man. Painted as if he is the point of light in this otherwise darkened room. A fragile, flickering candle flame, in a place of shadow

Yet, while we could spend hours immersed in the beauty of such a figure - i think it it worth considering the artist who painted him too.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. A man who, by all accounts, was the very embodiment of "mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

In the annals of Art history - and, certainly, when compared to the other great masters who preceded him (the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti & Raphael etc) - Caravaggio is often seen as something of a villain.

And, to be fair, there is good reason to see him as such.

Prone to drinking, fighting, arrogance & insulting other artists. There is strong evidence to suggest he killed a man. And, on the surface at least, he seems to have spent his life as a deeply troubled - angry - young man. (Caravaggio died when he was only 38 years old).

But - in spite of it all - i tend to believe Caravaggio was actually more of a victim of society than a villain.

And, it is in paintings like Supper at Emmaus - and the striking Bacchus below that we see the true heart of the man coming out.

The real Caravaggio was every bit as emotional and sensitive as the pictures suggest. But, this is the key. He was too sensitive. And, living in violent times - in a society which showed him no compassion - while also still suffering the loss of his mother (who died when he was barely a teenager) - it is perhaps no surprise that the artist would have a chip on his shoulder.

But, no matter the depths of darkness or anger someone carries within them - it would be entirely impossible for Caravaggio to paint with this level of beauty, unless he also had equal depths of love or emotion within him too.

And this is why i think we should always judge art and artist together - as a whole. Not simply as two separate entities.

Because then, we would see that the sublime understanding of light and shadow Caravaggio shows us in his painting - is also mirrored in his own self too.

As a man of polar opposites

Darkness and Luminosity

Ugliness and Beauty

Anger and Love.

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