Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), the masterful Italian painter, became more interesting to me once I learned of his ‘rebel’ status. The man was thrown in jail on several occasions and had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope. THE POPE. Caravaggio was known for ‘swaggering about for a month or two with a sword at his side’ after completing much of his work. Eventually Caravaggio killed a man in a late-night bar brawl- making him the most bad-ass painter I have ever heard of from his time.
I first heard of Caravaggio in my Introduction to Art History class where we studied his genre paintings, in particular The Calling of Saint Matthew. This painting showed up on the class Midterm, as well. Caravaggio masterfully mixed contemporary life with a religious scene. The figures around the table are in contemporary attire, counting money as they are interrupted by the traditionally attired Christ figure. The viewer is also seeing this scene as it happens, live. The viewer interrupts the moment just as Christ does.
The fact that this genre painting mixes the contemporary and the traditional (the nerve!), made it a revolutionary gesture of the time period. It allowed viewers to relate to the moment and believe that anyone could be called to be an apostle at any moment by Christ himself.
Subtle symbolism makes this painting interesting. The window flung open revealing the cross in its frame is not accidental, nor is the light pouring in from an unidentifiable source- meant to call upon the divine. The light playing off of Jesus’s naturalistic face is matsterful in its use of chiaroscuro.
All of this said, when I first saw the painting I was not blown away. I think the colors are dull and it is a bit dark for my taste, but I cannot deny that it is a work of genius. Maybe it is the fact that I can never wrap my head around just how exactly painters can communicate naturalism so well, while interweaving symbolism and meaning at the same time. Yes, it is that exactly. How do they do it?!
I am captivated again and again.