Caravaggio is an aesthetic bombshell, shattering received notions of the experience available to the viewer of a painting, so not surprisingly consequences flowed from the magnitude of his revolutionary achievement. Beyond Caravaggio at The National Gallery explores and verifies the truth of this.
First, there are Caravaggio’s paintings – six of which are on show in this exhibition — original not because of the subject matter but the astonishing emotional charge they embody, the shock impact of their naturalism, the dramatic lighting and the narrative verve. This was recognised during his lifetime, though he died at the young age of 39, and artists were drawn to Rome to see the work of someone they had heard about but knew little.
What you’ll feast on at The National Gallery are not just some of the paintings those travellers to Rome saw for the first time but also the way in which his work influenced them and other artists, changing the way they painted and changing the course of European art. It is difficult not to feel your senses enlivened by Caravaggio’s work: he brings drama to a painting’s subject matter in a way that is utterly original, realizing narrative incidents from the Bible in a way no one before him had ever attempted. There is, for instance, the moment when some of the apostles realize the man they are sharing a meal with is the resurrected Christ and it is rendered hugely dramatic in The Supper at Emmaus. You come across the term chiaroscuro many times in discussions about certain artists and Caravaggio rivals Rembrandt in the ability to transform a scene by making shade as important as the directional light. There is no Caravaggio painting that depicts a candle and yet the presence of candlelight is always sensed and on show.
Another example of how this technique brings an emotional charge that will glue you to the spot in front of the canvas is The Taking of Christ. It was painted in 1602, a year after The Supper at Emmaus, and fixes on the shutter-speed moment when Judas is about to betray Christ to the Roman authorities by the pre-arranged signal of a kiss on the cheek. The betrayer knows what he is doing, as does the betrayed, and two worlds collide as a determined Judas embraces a tranquil Christ: self-interest on the part of someone who will receive a substantial payment for his disloyalty and resigned submission to the corrupting power of avarice on a friend. The victim bears the consciousness of knowing the man who will kiss him has sentenced him to death but there is only the hint of recrimination in the slight movement of his body away from Judas. Betrayal is the dish best served cold.
Caravaggio died in 1610 at a relatively young age, he was 41, and it was ten years later that an artist known as Lo Spadarino painted The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. The subject matter, the Apostle Thomas refusing to believe in the resurrected Christ, was an iconographical trope long familiar to artists but only one exposed to Caravaggio’s work could have treated it in the way that Lo Spadarino manages. Christ meets the gaze of the viewer so that we become the doubting Thomas – a virtuoso piece of dramaturgy.
Caravaggio’s naturalism – he used live models but was not afraid to exaggerate bodily gestures and the position of limbs – also influenced artists that came after him and superb examples in this exhibition include Ribera’s portrait of an aged male body, Saint Onuphrius, and Saraceni’s Saint Gregory the Great. There is plenty to see in this exhibition and while a visit would be worth your time just to be enthralled by the half dozen Caravaggio paintings that have been brought together the bonus comes with the surprise opportunity to appreciate works by artists that will be so familiar. Everyone will find their own favourites and I have two: The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs, a narrative painting of supreme joy, and Dice Players, a painting with a cubist inclination that would make it at home in a gallery of twentieth-century art.