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

By 1607 Caravaggio found refuge in Naples, where he would transform painting literally overnight. Among the greatest treasures to be included in the show is the monumental Flagellation of Christ (1607), a painting of such harrowing brutality that it is almost unbearable. At the same time, it is the consummation of Caravaggio’s art, one of his most perfectly realized works, encapsulating his vision of humanity in all its terrible beauty and fragility. Initially greeted by the Neapolitans with “stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment,” the Flagellation lays bare for all to see the true meaning of fleshly existence, and the radical vulnerability it implies.

On the one hand, we are witnessing a man being tortured, confronted with its awful and twisted form of intimacy. We see the classically conceived Christ as he is literally beginning to collapse from exhaustion, while his tormentors kick, snarl and yank his hair to get him back in place. There hardly appears to be any note of transcendence here – we seem to be alone with nothing but darkness lying beyond a scene of torment. At the same time, Christ’s body has within it a kind of luminescence: in the very flesh that is being savaged there is a divinity. Caravaggio finds the transcendence here, in this world – God is made manifest in the flesh.

Although his art soared, and commissions poured in, Caravaggio’s troubles did not end: he would acquire new and dangerous enemies among the Knights of Malta, who for a time welcomed the painter and were even prepared to make him one of their own. Caravaggio’s portrait of the dignified and stern Maltese Knight, Fra. Antonio Martelli (1608) is included in the exhibition – it is one of the finest of the seventeenth century, and would have a powerful influence on Rembrandt, among others.

In just over a year, the painter would fall out with the brotherhood and eventually suffer grievously for a perceived insult to one of its members. In 1610, as he left a tavern in Naples, Caravaggio was ambushed and his face badly mutilated. A struggle for his life ensued, and shortly after his recovery he was finally permitted to return to Rome. However, ill fate and exhaustion caught up with the artist and he died enroute.

With the Martyrdom of St. Ursula (1610) we have what is perhaps Caravaggio’s final painting. Ursula stands, gazing down, her fingers placed on either side of the arrow that has just been fired at pointblank range into her chest by the King of the Huns. It is a terrible scene of very matter-of-fact, almost mechanical, killing. Ursula is caught, like many of Caravaggio’s other subjects, between life and death. She hovers at the edge of the abyss, and the insinuation – in the positioning of her hands and her slightly protruding belly – is that she is about to give birth, highlighting the interpenetration of living and dying. The picture contains the last portrait we have of the painter, whose upturned head peers blindly into the impenetrable darkness, mouth agape as though overcome by the desperation and inscrutability of our human lot.

This exhibition brings out a Caravaggio that we cannot afford to overlook. “…to be afraid of ugliness seemed to Caravaggio a contemptible weakness,” as Gombrich observed, “what he wanted was truth.” Caravaggio insists on a Christianity of the poor and underprivileged, on a realism that is unabashed and uncompromising – and at a time when we seem to be drowning in the lies and the corruption emanating from powerful elites, the painter offers us a sorely needed antidote.

Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

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