Caravaggio famous paintings include The Calling of St Matthew. This large oil on canvas paintings depicts the moment Jesus Christ inspires the apostle Matthew to follow him as Lord.
The painting presents a story from the Biblical Gospel of Matthew. Taken from Matthew 9:9, the scriptures describe how Christ spoke to Matthew. As a tax collector, he sat in his counting house working on business matters. Entering the room, Jesus simply uttered the words “Follow Me”.
As a result, Matthew experienced an epiphany and followed Jesus thereafter. Responding to criticism for fraternizing with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replied “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repent”.
A bright and dazzling streamof light illuminates the men’s awed faces, staring at their Lord in human form.
Christ’s hand stretches out towards Matthew. This is an important point as it directly mirrors Adam’s outstretched arm in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1510).
New Testament makes specific and explicit comparisons between Jesus and Adam on two occasions. The first instance is in Romans, and a second occasion in Corinthians where St Paul argues “as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive”. Later in Corinthians, St Paul describes Jesus as the “ultimate Adam”.
In the painting, Matthew sits with four other men. Jesus enters the room, with Saint Peter at his side, and he points at Matthew. Despite the seemingly simple narrative, there remains substantial debate about the exact identity of Matthew in the painting.
Traditionally identified as the bearded man with a surprised expression, Matthew apparently points at himself. This gesture is often analyzed as expressing an interrogative “Me?”. This is in response to Christ’s instruction to follow.
Indeed, the same bearded man features in the other two St Matthew paintings created by Caravaggio. This adds strength to the traditional interpretation.
Contrastingly however, recent scholars posit St Matthew is the young man seated at the left-hand side of the table. The older man’s pointing gesture thus becomes “Him?”. In this understanding, the painting depicts the moment before young St Matthew raises his head to see Christ for the first time.
Created for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, Italy, Caravaggio’s St Matthew paintings are true artistic masterpieces. This chapel was part of the Church of the French Congregation (San Luigi dei Francesci), a highly important religious building.
The artworks remain in the chapel to this day. The Calling of St Matthew painting continues to be displayed alongside two other Caravaggio artworks, The Martyrdom of St Matthew (1599-1600) and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602).
As an important Italian Baroque painter, Caravaggio received the commission after his previous employer (Giuseppe Cesari) was too busy to take-on the work. Financed through a gift in the will of Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel, they were a considerable undertaking.
The three Caravaggio artworks represent a significant move away from Cesari’s distinct mannerist style. Instead, Caravaggio employs a more naturalistic and narrative technique.
The painting represents the juxtaposition between eternal faith and light, compared with the mundane, dark indoor scene. Jesus also has bare feet (also symbolizing holiness) which contrasts with the tax collector’s well-dressed attire (referencing worldly concerns).
The work was enormously popular at the time of its creation, with the Italian public appreciating the painting’s clear narrative and religious morals. Pope Francis has told od how how, as young man, he frequently traveled to San Luigi to view and contemplate the painting.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, best known simply as “Caravaggio,” was a true master of the Italian Renaissance. He created some of the most famous religious paintings during his creative and tumultuous career.
Born in Milan, Italy, in 1571, Caravaggio lived a short, chaotic, and exciting artistic life. Throughout the 1570s, the plague ravaged many Italian cities. Consequently, the family relocated to the town of Caravaggio in 1576. The young child’s grandparents died from the plague when he was just six years old, and his mother passed away from the disease when he reached his tenth birthday.
Caravaggio’s artistic talents were evident from an early age, however. He commenced an artistic apprenticeship in the studio of Simone Peterzano at the age of twelve. After four years of working as an apprentice, Caravaggio moved to Rome. At this time (the late 1580s), a spate of Italian church buildings meant high demand for high-caliber artists.
When Caravaggio commenced his career, the Catholic Church sought paintings as an alternative to Mannerism. They hoped to counter the Protestant reformation with a new, naturalistic style that communicated religion to the masses.
Caravaggio’s style of realistic yet vivid chiaroscuro (focusing on dramatic juxtapositions of light and dark) was perfect for this purpose. Boy Peeling a Fruit, Boy with Basket of Fruit, and Young Sick Bacchus (circa 1593) reflect this early, intensely dramatic style.
During this period, Caravaggio met influential artists and patrons such as the architect Onorio Longhini and the painter Prospero Orsi. They further introduced him into wealthy Roman society.
Primarily a painter of devotional art, Caravaggio initially focused on scenes from the New Testament. He was a true innovator, prioritizing the mundane, everyday aspects of biblical narratives and transforming them to new heights.
Controversially, Caravaggio often used street people as models for figures such as Mary and the Apostles. Heightened by theatrical lighting and shallow pictorial space, it launched a new age of realism in religious art.
Due to their shocking nature, the church rejected many early Caravaggio artworks. Indeed, rumors abounded that Caravaggio used the body of a dead prostitute (drowned in the Tiber) for Mary in Death of the Virgin (1601). Interestingly, however, the painting was later purchased by the Duke of Mantua on the recommendation of the great Peter Paul Rubens (painter of The Conversion of St Paul).
Despite (or because of) these scandals, Caravaggio’s fame and reputation quickly grew. Caravaggio art is best known for his dramatic lighting and rich, jewel-toned coloring. Caravaggio paintings synthesized theatrical composition with biblical narratives as part of the Catholic counter reformation.
One need only consider paintings such as Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599) and The Incredulity of St Thomas (1602) to understand the intense skill and drama that made Caravaggio’s name. Indeed, each composition told a story that believers of all social echelons could understand.
Caravaggio also frequently tackled Greek mythological topics, exemplified in works such as Bacchus (1596-97).
Nonetheless, many early paintings represented scenes from everyday life. This included paintings such as The Cardsharps (1594) and The Fortune Teller (1598). The fantastic detailing and rich psychological insight of these works impressed a prominent collector, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte. He was one of Caravaggio’s first patrons, providing him with lodgings and multiple introductions.
What is Caravaggio's masterpiece?
These social connections enabled by Cardinal Del Monte led to one of Caravaggio’s most important commissions. This consisted of two paintings for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. Today, they are his shining masterpieces…
These two paintings are The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. Painted between 1599 and 1600, they remain in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi to this day. Widely praised even at the time, Caravaggio never struggled for commissions after this date.
Representing stories from the Biblical Gospel of Matthew, Caravaggio boldly places Jesus Christ and the saints in tawdry, dark settings. This realistic presentation contrasts the shining light of faith with worldly attire, mundane interiors, and everyday activities.
Even in the present day, Caravaggio’s artwork retains its emotional power. Pope Francis spoke of his frequent visits to The Calling of Saint Matthew, simply commenting, “this is me.” Even the Pope saw himself in Caravaggio’s art as a “sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.”
As well as the works in the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio’s Betrayal of Christ, Entombment of Christ (1602-3), and The Seven Works of Mercy (1606) are also acknowledged as yet more astounding religious paintings.
This is a common question, and it’s worthwhile noting that Caravaggio’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi. However, he was a completely different individual from the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (known simply as Michelangelo).
The great Michelangelo lived from 1475 to 1564 and died before Caravaggio’s birth in 1571.
While Michelangelo largely avoided public scandal, Caravaggio was known for his quick temper, many lovers, and frequent brawls. He committed many minor crimes, such as swearing at a constable, cutting a hole in his landlord’s ceiling (to allow light for painting), and carrying a sword without a license.
More severe crimes included scarring a guard during a fight and throwing a plate directly in the face of a waiter. The incident occurred because Caravaggio believed his undercooked artichokes were an insult.
Ultimately, Caravaggio’s fiery temper was his downfall. He killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in a duel after Tomassoni insulted a prostitute Caravaggio particularly admired. Scholars speculate the two men also had gambling debts. However, Caravaggio was exiled as punishment for Tomassoni’s murder at the risk of execution.
Caravaggio consequently fled Rome (headed to Naples), where he hid with multiple noble families and patrons such as the Sforzas and the Colonnas. He continued working during his exile, traveling to Malta and Sicily. Indeed, during this period, Caravaggio painted several masterpieces, including The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing (the only painting Caravaggio ever signed).
Despite this, Caravaggio fled Malta after yet another fight. He seriously wounded a high-ranking knight yet escaped prison. He traveled to Sicily (under the protection of an old artist friend, Mario Minniti) and painted the Adoration of the Shepherds on the picturesque Italian island.
Nonetheless, Caravaggio lived in constant fear and paranoia. It proved well-founded after a group of men attacked him (likely in retaliation for the attack on the Maltese knight). This left Caravaggio’s face permanently disfigured.
It’s unknown whether Caravaggio died of natural causes or murder. He died at some point in July 1610 while still attempting to obtain a Papal pardon for the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.
The renowned artist probably died from syphilis, malaria, or brucellosis. Nonetheless, some art historians posit Caravaggio died in retribution for either Tomassoni or the knight he attacked in Malta.
However, recent discoveries (made in 2010) identified bones likely of Caravaggio. They revealed toxic levels of lead, probably absorbed from the paints he worked with. Caravaggio’s painting style was incredibly physical and erratic, supporting this theory. Furthermore, unpredictable and violent behavior is also a common symptom of lead poisoning.
Whatever the cause of death, Caravaggio died at the age of 38 in Spain. He was en route to the Pope after hearing a pardon was due.
Caravaggio paintings greatly influenced the late Renaissance and Baroque art movement. In the words of the art historian Bernard Berenson, “no other Italian painter has exercised so great an influence” on European art.
Even artists of the time called themselves “Caravaggisti.” Indeed, leading painters such as Bartolomeo Manfredi, Carlo Saraceni, Battistello Caracciolo, and Artemisia Gentileschi all followed Caravaggio’s pioneering techniques, heightened naturalism, and dramatic compositions.
What’s more, Peter Paul Rubens, Diego Velasquez, and Rembrandt van Rijn loved Caravaggio art. His use of tenebrism (the style of painting characterized by dark tones with contrasting light effects) is particularly evident in Rembrandt’s later masterpieces.
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