Over the centuries there are few painters who have portrayed human reactions so realistically as Caravaggio does. His use of light is central to all his work and in his time that was innovative, though not totally unique. His figures are real, not surprisingly so when his models had been plucked out of the streets and were required to simply to be themselves. Later they might be surprised to discover that they had been transformed into St. Peter, Judas, and even Jesus himself. These were rough trade types who knew enough of life for the experience to be deeply etched in their faces and therefore worthy of being immortalised by the artist. They are fearful, passionate, yet also simple people, used to a world where craftiness, deceit, violence and even murder were the stuff of life and their looks and reactions are uniquely used by Caravaggio to convey incidents in the Gospel story in a startlingly realistic way and amazingly he gets the situation right every time.
However in spite of such skill, personally, I have never found that his work creates any sense of religious devotion in me. I am amazed by the validity of the reactions portrayed in his work such as the look on the faces in ‘The Call of Matthew’; the face of the jailer looking at the head of the executed John the Baptist; and the responses of the disciples recognising Jesus in both of the ‘Emmaus’ paintings. Caravaggio’s patrons would surely have been well satisfied that their devotion deepened as they gazed at their purchase. But for me those feelings of devotion simply don’t happen. In the ‘Emmaus’ paintings, for exampled, as you see the disciples suddenly recognising Jesus in the breaking of bread, it might be expected that the viewer might respond in kind with such words as ‘My Lord and my God!’, but for me it is enough that the paintings are powerful in being just a portrayal of two old men shocked at their recognition of a lost friend/relative and producing the sort of response like ‘well bugger me, if it isn’t our Albert!’
The current exhibition at the National Gallery, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ confirmed those feelings not just in the few works of his on display (there are just six, three of which could have been seen in the Gallery, free of charge, only weeks beforehand) but also in the quite worthy examples of later artists who were deeply influenced by him. I have a feeling about Caravaggio and his followers, however, that had they been painting during a more secular time in history and thus freed from the shackles of Christian patronage, that one can only begin to imagine what further wonders he and they could have produced.
In the final room of the exhibition, Caravaggio’s magnificence is displayed in all its glory. What a privilege to have the loan from the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, of his John the Baptist. The work, a large canvass, is wonderful, but again the subject is ultimately of no significance and there is no need to talk about religious responses. Instead, in this masterpiece, we are confronted by a dark, brooding, pensive, stoic, muscular young man. His head lowered slightly, and his face, in part shadow, turned slightly towards the viewer. His tangled hair over his brow, and his naked body swathed in brilliant scarlet. He is sensuous and majestic in turns and screams out to the viewer ‘dont you dare ignore me’. Just stand and take in the powerful image of this young man. By doing so you have experienced the wonder of Caravaggio and that picture alone has been worth the price of your ticket.