Carravagio and the art of death

On a recent tumultuous trip to Ottawa (root canal and truck drama et al), we visited the National Gallery’s exhibition Carravagio and His Followers in Rome. Here is an extensive exhibition of the many great and not so great painters who followed Caravaggio at the height of his fame and power while painting in Rome. Michaelangelo Merisi da Carravagio lived from 1570 – 1610. He was a celebrated painter whose portraits of saints, Christ and other dramatic stories from Christianity sparked a radical movement in art. His work is considered the ‘ground zero’ of modern painting. Carravagio set himself apart by his use of stark black backgrounds, highlighting facial expressions, and gestures that seemed to glow from behind. He used light like no other and was considered daring and radical in his day. After his death his star fell and it has taken over four hundred years for scholars, critics and artists to appreciate his maverick genius.

His work in this particular exhibition is startling. There are a few pieces that I had never seen before and one in particular we had just seen in the National Gallery in London. For the most part however his work is bold, violent, compassionate and highly erotic. I love his work, it is truly the most visually exciting depictions of Christ and the saints that there is. He blends Christian belief and sensuality without any hesitation; he portrays his subjects in mid ecstasy/horror fundamentally illustrating the physical of which Christianity is based. It is a flesh based religion. And the flesh dies or transfigures or transmutes or transcends but it is always a fleshly world from which it begins and ends. Death is truly his subject matter and death is what all devoted Christians are stumbling toward both rapturously and hesitantly. Through death a Christian finds true meaning to his life. No one explores this with more vigour than Carravagio.

His life, now known widely was notorious to say the least. In and out of jail and favour with the Pope, Carravagio loved dueling, drinking and gambling best when he wasn’t painting. Beggars, prostitutes and rent boys dot his world as sparkling and fading stars rescue the darkness every night. He died somewhat suspiciously too young and with a long list of not-so-Christian deeds behind him. His flawed life and his great art are what romantics have mooned over for centuries. In our age of political correctness, the thinking is that it is hard to justify talent although there are no Caravaggios today, so our social media discussions are mute. Which brings me to Amy Winehouse: while not a profound talent that will travel centuries as Mr. C, Amy was a sad flame that flickered love and emotion. Her gorgeous voice, from the depths of a trampled heart, begged for love throughout her two great records. But, it wasn’t to be, and dead she is after years of brawling, drinking and general bad behaviour. A tragedy and also a poetic respite through death of a life lead without acknowledgement of convention or politeness, Amy died without love, M. M. da Carravagio would understand.

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