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  • gerard van weyenbergh

Caravaggio most scandalous work!

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

A genius painter with a sulphureous reputation, Caravaggio caused a scandal with the painting The Death of the Virgin . By freeing himself from the artistic codes of the time, the master of chiaroscuro deliberately gives a profane dimension to the scene.

In 1606, in Rome, the construction of a church was completed in the Trastevere district: Santa Maria della Scala. The monks asked Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio , to decorate the altar taking as their theme the death of the Virgin Mary described in The Golden Legend , a work by Jacques de Voragine dating from the Middle Ages. In the midst of the Catholic Reformation, Italy wanted to fight against Protestantism and sought a new, stripped-down image. The painter has already completed a large commission for the Contarelli chapel of the Saint-Louis-des-Français church in an innovative style . But when the congregation discovers the painting, it's a scandal! Caravaggio's realism is shocking . It shows a mother of Christ far from the usual canons: the Virgin's skin is cadaverous, her feet dirty, her belly swollen! And the apostles placed around her have all the common people. The rejected painting will end up with the Duke of Mantua and will be replaced by a wiser work by Carlo Saraceni. However, Caravaggio enjoyed the protection of numerous patrons in the Eternal City . But his sanguine and familiar character from the underworld – which earned him several stays in prison – caught up with him. In 1606, it was one brawl too many. Caravaggio kills a man and goes into exile in Naples. He died four years later, at age 38.

A remarkable painting by Caravaggio

If Caravaggio is so famous, it is because he revolutionized the art of his time by using light in a very theatrical way. The master of chiaroscuro takes common people as models and, without idealizing them, casts an oblique light on them which accentuates and dramatizes their presence. The background remains in shadow . He also limited the number of colors but used a spectacular red curtain, which is found in several of his paintings. Its genius lies in the beam of light, coming from the left, which crosses the painting diagonally and illuminates the Virgin, dressed in red, her left arm extended.

Manufacturing secrets

Caravaggio often gave the characters in his works the faces of people he knew. Even putting his own decapitated head in the hands of the winner in his David with the Head of Goliath (1606-1607). The models for The Death of the Virgin were probably all recruited by the painter in the street or among his companions in Rome. And to depict Mary , the artist's contemporaries accused him of having taken on the features sometimes of a prostitute, sometimes of the corpse of a drowned woman recovered from the Tiber. The painter would have borrowed it from the morgue and brought it back to his studio to better reproduce it.

The detail not to be missed

At Mary's bedside, a young woman, supposed double of Mary Magdalene, seated on a small chair, seems to lament forcefully. We can guess his modest origins from his simple clothes and his hair braided in Roman fashion. She surely came for the mortuary toilet , as the presence of the copper basin at her feet suggests. This trivial detail reinforces the sordid character of the scene . Nothing divine. A banality of death which will shock religious people.

The artists that Caravaggio inspired

Other painters, particularly in Flanders, used chiaroscuro in the 17th century, but Caravaggio took it to its peak. So much so that his very dramatic and naturalistic style became famous. After his death, “Caravagism” spread across Europe, particularly in France with Valentin de Boulogne and Georges de La Tour. The latter also adopted his taste for mixing religious and secular subjects .

Caravaggio's key dates

  • 1571. Birth of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known as Caravaggio, near Milan.

  • 1592. Departure for Rome. First in charge of fruits and still lifes in a workshop, he painted his first masterpieces such as Les Tricheurs (1594-1595).

  • 1599. First major commission, that of a cycle on the life of Saint Matthew, for the church of Saint-Louis-des-Français, in Rome. Caravaggio's success is growing throughout Italy.

  • 1606. A fatal duel forced him into exile. He wandered through Malta and Sicily before returning to Naples. Four years later, he wanted to go to Rome where the Pope was ready to sign his pardon. But he became unwell and died shortly after.

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