Trials of the Flesh: Caravaggio in Milan’ for your review. Please advise if you plan to publish

Sam Ben-Meir – November 21, 2017-Mareeg.com-MILAN, Italy – The ambitiously conceived exhibition ‘Dentro Caravaggio’ (Inside Caravaggio) wants us to see this extraordinary painter with new eyes. Currently on display at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, eighteen masterpieces are accompanied by never-before-seen reflectographs and x-radiographs. These artistic diagnoses offer viewers a glimpse into Caravaggio’s creative process – to see how he worked, to observe his method. To be sure, the journey that this exhibition takes us on is revelatory and transformative.

Caravaggio is ultimately a painter of exposure, revealing the human experience as one of constitutive vulnerability. Michaelangelo Merisi was born in 1571 in the town of Caravaggio, not far from Milan, where he spent much of the first twenty years of his life, before making his way to Rome. With the arrival of the plague, Caravaggio’s family was not spared: by the time he was eight, the boy had lost his uncle, grandfather, and father. There can be little doubt that early exposure to extreme terror, physical anguish and death informed his vision as a painter who specializes in scenes of humanity in extremis.

No hope no fear. This was the motto of Caravaggio and his comrades. When we look at his life—the constant run-ins with the law, his sword and dagger wielding escapades in Rome, his irascibility and propensity to self-sabotage; his readiness to quarrel, attack and even to kill—we see a man who seems to be perpetually drawn to the edge, who only knows how to live at the extreme verge of existence. And in fact, the truth of his art is just that: it expresses our ineluctable fate – our existence is always and ever on the brink of being and non-being.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599-1600), where we see the Assyrian General precisely at the moment when he is no longer alive, and not yet dead. The show opens with this breathtaking masterpiece: a work of such immense power that one is left speechless before it, as if a witness to the ravishingly beautiful Judith and her deliberate and studied decapitation of the powerful man she has just seduced. In the painting, the heroine’s lips are parted slightly, a rendering that is true to the Book of Judith which tells us that the pious widow prayed Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel as she severed the head of her enemy. As the late art historian E. H. Gombrich rightly observed, “Caravaggio must have read the Bible again and again, and pondered its words.”

Not mentioned in the text are Judith’s erect nipples, visible beneath her semi-translucent blouse. This subtly underscores the eroticism of an unusually violent act of unexpected intimacy – where the Assyrian is literally being penetrated by his own sword, undone by the very thing which represents his power, his manhood. The mighty commander is brought low by a determined young woman, while her wizened old maid looks on ready to gather the head “in her food bag” once her mistress has succeeded in detaching it.

Caravaggio painted St. John the Baptist numerous times, and two of these are in the exhibit. The more extraordinary one is St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (ca.1603), now owned by the Nelson-Atkin’s Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. This is a John who speaks to us loudly, even as he sits silent and brooding.

At first sight, the young man can easily be viewed as a rather moody adolescent – but the sullenness is not mere juvenile petulance. This is a deeply religious rendering of John as he meditates on his ultimate fate – which will be to suffer execution on the orders of King Herod; he knows about the abuse of power, and the corruption of conscience it breeds. With the intense chiaroscuro, the picture is lit as though a flash of lightening has, for an instant, illuminated John in a woodland setting. The severity and intensity of this saint, with his crimson drapery, animal furs, and simple reed cross reminds us that this is a preacher of repentance: a Nazarite who understood the inadequacy and folly of mankind, along with the reckless and foolish ways of those who wield power.

In the Madonna of Loreto (1605), two kneeling peasants pray before the Virgin and Child. Caravaggio characteristically emphasizes the naked legs and exposed dirty feet of the male pilgrim, as well as the torn soiled cap of the old woman. While it is undoubtedly true that pilgrims to Loreto entered the shrine with bare feet and tattered clothing to display their humility, the artist’s insistence on their poverty reveals his affinity for the severe pauperist strain of the Catholic counter-reformation. Caravaggio’s Christianity is emphatically a Christianity of the poor. Andrew Graham-Dixon rightly calls the painting “a tour de force of naked religious populism … blatant in its appeal to the masses.”

Caravaggio’s work is a prolonged meditation on the vulnerability which marks our condition regardless of how powerful or brave we might be, regardless of our skill with a blade. In fact, Caravaggio was, by all accounts, a quite proficient swordsman; so much so that in 1606 he killed a man in a prearranged duel, prompting his flight from Rome.

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Mareeg senior news editor since 2001 and he can be reached at news@mareeg.com