At Large  January 9, 2023  Dian Parker

The Dark Red Drama of Caravaggio

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Chalk portrait of Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni, circa 1621

Caravaggio’s paintings are filled with expressions of aggression, awestruck wonder, dark foreboding, violence, and profound sadness‒the aesthetics of exclamation. Tragic horror expressed by a severed head, or the sublime reverence on Madonna’s face is terrible (as in causing terror, awe, and dread) and often beautiful. What also stuns one about his work is his genius for light and shadow, color and hidden recesses, as well as the sheer anatomical perfection of the human form.

Born in Milan in 1570, Caravaggio lived on the streets, as evidenced by his early paintings. The rough and rowdy way of life from his early teens imbue these paintings with a palpable sexual charge, showing a homoerotic strain. As an orphaned apprentice, and completely destitute, he was filled with desire and contempt for the ragazzi, and at the same time craved legitimacy for his work.

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Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus, c. 1593, oil on canvas

His paintings are autobiographical. The early work, Sick Bacchus (1593) is a self-portrait at age 19. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599), painted when he was 26, shows an older and angrier youth still surrounded by the ragazzi. The boy-turned-man produced what his contemporaries labeled his “dark and dashing manner.” His unbridled rage often took over provoking fisticuffs, sword fights, even the slashing of his own paintings because of a critical remark, and then, committing murder at the height of his powers. Poussin said about Caravaggio’s work, “The ugliness of his paintings will lead him to hell.”

In 1599, when Caravaggio was only 29, Cardinal del Monte used his influence to secure Caravaggio’s first major commission. The decoration of the Contarelli Chapel consisted of three paintings with scenes from St. Matthew’s life. Not only were the paintings controversial in that they didn’t invoke religious feelings but rather violence and horror, but they also catapulted Caravaggio into the Roman art scene, triumphantly. It is astonishing to note that through x-ray analysis, historians have learned that the painter had arrived at the definitive painting not by the usual means, but worked directly onto the canvas without the usual recourse to drawings on paper, and with surprising rapidity.

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Caravaggio, La Conversion de Saint Paul, 1601, oil on canvas, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Welcomed into the court, he began to gain favor with Rome's wealthiest patrons and collectors. With undiminished candor, Caravaggio continued to paint what he saw. At the same time, he painted large, religious, commissioned paintings that went beyond the religious story, giving his portraits deep and realistic, common feelings. In a mere seven years, he purportedly became the greatest religious artist of the seventeenth century.

Caravaggio never made sculptures, architecture, or frescos. He painted. His genius is in his style, so easily recognizable. Real people, real emotions, real blood, real anger, real despair. His presence is blatant in every painting‒inimitable, energetic power. His blood reds and luminous flesh. The angle of mystic light. His ability to depict flesh in movement, as well as in the spirit. The seen and the unseen.

Take his Conversion of St. Paul, in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Caravaggio managed to convey the body and the spirit through his use of intense chiaroscuro: light and shadow, with sharp splashes of deep red contrasted with the luminous flesh of St. Paul. In the painting, a young boy holds back a man seeking to help the prostrate Paul, and a plumed, steel-helmeted soldier subdues Paul’s gray stallion. These figures are all dark, in shadow, but highlighted are St. Paul’s flesh and his shimmering crimson drapery.

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Caravaggio, Fruchtbarkeit (Fünf Sinne), 1573-1610, oil on canvas, Bavarian State Painting Collection

The deep velvet folds of red draped cloth and mantles flow through Caravaggio’s paintings with movement and refinement, as seen with a cushion, a waist sash, a sleeve, the red lips of youths, the blush of cheeks, the fruit of cherries and apples. The gushing red blood in so much of his work is organic and dramatically real.

Caravaggio died a tragic death at age forty, in 1610. He was waiting for a pardon from Rome after he had committed murder and had been on the run in Naples, Sicily, and finally Malta. Suffering from a high fever, he had just missed the ship returning to Rome, chasing after it for miles and then collapsing. He died in Malta three days later, never knowing that Rome had indeed pardoned him and that his work became an invaluable inspiration for the master artists Rubens, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and so many others.

His last known painting, Annunciation, shows Mary kneeling before the angel Gabriel. He is blessing her with the Christ child. Here there is no red, save a sliver under Mary’s deep, rich teal cloak. Along with the angel in gleaming white, Caravaggio has given us a restful, serene image. His last.

About the Author

Dian Parker

Dian Parker’s essays have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She ran White River Gallery in Vermont, curating twenty exhibits, and now writes about art and artists for various publications. She trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. To find out more, visit her website

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