From Clueless to Connoisseur: How Caravaggio Taught Me to Value Art

In my twenties, fresh out of university with a science degree in hand, I found myself in Dublin. Art was a foreign concept to me then, something I had never really understood or felt a connection with. But as fate would have it, on a rainy day in Dublin, I found myself seeking shelter in the National Gallery of Ireland.

The gallery houses the national collection of Irish and European art. It’s home to more than 16,000 works of art from around 1300 until the present day. The collection includes masterpieces by artists such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, Goya, Gainsborough, Monet and Picasso. It was here that I stumbled upon my first Caravaggio painting. Little did I know then that this encounter would spark a journey of discovery and deep admiration for Caravaggio’s work. This blog post is a chronicle of that journey.

Discovering Caravaggio

On that rainy day in Dublin, as I wandered through the halls of the National Gallery, I eventually found myself standing before “The Taking Of Christ”. This Caravaggio painting depicts the moment of Jesus’ arrest, a scene filled with tension and emotion.

In the painting, there are seven figures: John, Jesus, Judas, three soldiers, and a man holding a lantern to the scene. (The main light source is not evident in the painting but comes from the upper left; the lesser light source is the lantern held by the man at the right.)

The central group is composed of Jesus, Judas, and a soldier with an outstretched hand. Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, is seen delivering his treacherous kiss to identify Jesus for the soldiers. Christ accepts his fate with humility, his hands clasped in a gesture of faith.

The first soldier’s cold shining armor contrasts with the vulnerability of the defenseless Christ. He offers no resistance but gives in to his persecutors’ harsh and unjust treatment. His anguish is conveyed by his furrowed brow and down-turned eyes.

At the far left, a man (St John) is fleeing; his arms are raised, his mouth is open in a gasp, and his cloak is flying and being snatched back by a soldier. The terrorized expression and gesture of the fleeing man convey the emotional intensity of the moment.

Caravaggio presents this scene as if it were a frozen moment. The over-crowded composition and violent gestures contribute to its dramatic impact. This is further intensified by the strong lighting, which focuses attention on the expressions of the foreground figures.

What struck me was not just Caravaggio’s unique style but also how deeply moved I was by what I was seeing. It was unlike anything I had seen before. For the first time ever, I “got” a painting. This encounter sparked my journey of discovery and deep admiration for Caravaggio’s work.

Learning from Caravaggio

When I first decided to pick up a paintbrush, I was as green as they come. The world of painting was a mystery to me. I didn’t know the difference between oils and acrylics and watercolours. But Caravaggio’s work had ignited a spark of curiosity in me, and I was determined to learn what this art stuff was all about.

I started with the basics, trying to understand the different types of paints and their properties. Oils, with their rich, deep colours and slow drying time proved too messy for my tastes, while acrylics were versatile and easy to work with. I tried watercolours too but they turned out to be much more difficult than they first looked.

I tried experimenting with different techniques and styles. I attempted to recreate the dramatic lighting and realistic expressions that I admired in Caravaggio’s work. But painting was a lot harder than it looked. My faces looked like punctured footballs. Dark backdrops became just muddy messes. My attempts were clumsy and unrefined, a far cry from the masterpiece that had inspired me.

Despite my many failed attempts, I did persevere. I thought of each mistake as a stepping stone towards improvement. Eventually I got to a stage (after a couple of decades!) where I could justify opening my own little gallery in the village in which I live but even now, after years and years, I still consider myself a bit of a fraud, a novice. Every dab of paint brings me closer to understanding the magic that Caravaggio wielded so effortlessly and how very, very, very far I am from ever emulating my hero.

In many ways, my journey with painting mirrors my journey with Caravaggio’s art. It’s been a path of discovery, filled with challenges and setbacks, but also immense joy and fulfillment. And just like my admiration for Caravaggio’s work, my love for painting continues to grow.

Caravaggio’s Unique Style and Realism

Caravaggio’s style was revolutionary in his time. He broke away from the idealized depictions common in earlier Renaissance art and embraced a more realistic approach. His innovative use of chiaroscuro (the interplay of dark and light) and tenebrism (black backgrounds) brought out the physical and emotional truth of his starkly illuminated subjects.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Caravaggio’s work was his use of people he knew as models. He often used colleagues, beggars, and even prostitutes as models for his paintings. Many biblical subjects (like the soldiers in “The Taking of Christ”) appeared in what was them modern dress. This gave his work a sense of immediacy and realism that was unprecedented at the time.

In addition to using people he knew as models, Caravaggio also incorporated modern artifacts into his scenes. This further enhanced the realism of his work and made it more relatable to contemporary audiences.

As for the paints he used, Caravaggio achieved his dramatic effects with a limited palette typical of 17th-century painters: iron oxides (ochers and umbers), a few mineral pigments (vermilion, lead-tin yellow, lead white), organic carbon black, and verdigris. These pigments allowed him to create the rich, deep colors and stark contrasts characteristic of his work.

Significant Works and Their Personal Impact

Among Caravaggio’s works, “David with the Head of Goliath”, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”, and “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” hold a special place in my heart. Each painting, with its unique depiction of light, shadow, and emotion, deepened my appreciation for art and inspired me to explore my own creativity.

David with the Head of Goliath: This painting is a powerful depiction of the biblical story where young David defeats the giant Goliath. Caravaggio’s portrayal is unique in that he presents himself as the severed head of Goliath, held by David. The painting is filled with raw emotion, the victorious David looks over Goliath’s head not with triumph, but with a complex mix of relief, remorse, and resolve. The stark realism and emotional depth of this painting left a profound impact on me. It made me reflect on the complexities of victory and defeat, and the thin line that often separates the hero from the villain. The head is a self-portrait of Caravaggio.

Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath”, 1607 version. Available as a poster on Redbubble.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew: This painting depicts the moment when an angel appears to Saint Matthew to inspire him to write his Gospel. Caravaggio’s portrayal is unique in that he presents Saint Matthew in a very human and relatable light – an ordinary man called upon for an extraordinary task. The painting resonated with me deeply as it reminded me how inspiration can strike us when we least expect it.

Caravaggio’s “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”. Available as a poster on Redbubble.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist: Yet another beheading! This is one of Caravaggio’s largest paintings and also surprisingly the only one he signed. The painting depicts the moment when Saint John the Baptist is beheaded on the orders of King Herod. Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow heightens the drama of the scene, while his attention to detail brings a chilling realism to the event. This painting served as a stark reminder to me of the consequences of unchecked power and the persecution of truth-tellers.

Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist”. Available as a poster on Redbubble.

Each of these paintings left a deep impression on me. They not only showcase Caravaggio’s artistic genius but also his ability to bring biblical stories to life in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences. His paintings invite us to reflect on these stories and draw our own insights from them.

Caravaggio’s Influence on the Art World

Caravaggio’s impact on the art world was profound. His innovative style and dramatic use of light and shadow influenced many of his peers in the Roman art world. His influence can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini, and Rembrandt.

The first Caravaggisti, stylistic followers of Caravaggio, included Mario Minniti, Giovanni Baglione, and Leonello Spada. In the next generation, there were Carlo Saraceni, Bartolomeo Manfredi and Orazio Borgianni as well as anonymous masters such as the Master of the Gamblers.

One of the most famous Caravaggisti was Bartolomeo Manfredi. His painting “Mars Chastising Cupid” is a great example of how Caravaggio’s style was adopted and adapted by other artists. In this painting, Manfredi uses dramatic lighting and realistic depiction, hallmarks of Caravaggio’s style, to bring the mythological scene to life.

Despite being considerably older, Orazio Gentileschi was another one of these artists who lived much beyond 1620, and ended up as court painter to Charles I of England. His daughter Artemisia Gentileschi was also close to Caravaggio, and one of the most gifted of the movement. Her work “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is a testament to Caravaggio’s enduring influence.

Caravaggio’s influence extended beyond Italy and can be seen in the works of Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst and French painters such as Valentin de Boulogne and Georges de La Tour. His impact on Baroque painting was so significant that he is often referred to as the “Father of Painting.”

Even today, his influence can be seen in modern art. His dramatic lighting effects, realistic depictions, and emotional intensity continue to inspire artists around the world.

A Transformation Through Art

Looking back on my journey, it’s clear that Caravaggio’s work has had a profound impact on me. From the moment I first laid eyes on “The Taking Of Christ” in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, I was captivated. His use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism, his commitment to realism, and his ability to capture raw human emotion moved me deeply.

As I delved deeper into his work, exploring paintings like “David with the Head of Goliath”, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”, and “Beheading of Saint John the Baptist”, my appreciation for art grew. Each painting offered a new perspective, a new insight that deepened my understanding of art and its power to move and inspire. Even today, his influence can be seen in modern art.

My journey with Caravaggio has been one of discovery and deep admiration. From being a novice who could barely spell his name to becoming a deep lover of his work, this journey has been transformative. And just like my admiration for Caravaggio’s work, my love for painting continues to grow. Even now, every time I look at a Caravaggio painting, I am in awe of his mastery and the depth of emotion he brings out with each brushstroke.

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