By Jeremy Lillig, CSJA
The month of August brings not only the incredible heat of summer but also two important dates in the liturgical calendar: The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Memorial of the Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. Arguments could surely be made to link these two events theologically, however for the sake of this column we look to the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio (1571-1610).
The struggle of genius sometimes takes form in chaotic lifestyles and troubled existences. Such was the case with Caravaggio. Plagued with an inability to lead a stable life coupled with a penchant for drinking and violent altercations, Caravaggio’s genius was always under the threat of his frivolous actions. His incredibly important patrons and momentous commissions however have afforded him the very worthy descriptor of one of the major influences to Baroque style painting. A perfect storm of his daring, risky behavior, and the Roman Catholic Church during Counter Reformation led to an onslaught of artistic commissions thusly gifting history with some of the greatest masterpieces ever conceived in art.
Caravaggio’s style was a blend of naturalism with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro, or “dark fading into light.” This sharp contrast lacked intermediate value as it shifted from dark to light, the results of which are breathtaking, unique portrayals of some of the most significant scenes from the Bible.
After gaining notable praise for his paintings Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio’s commissions began to increase at an incredible rate. This success led to more trouble personally as well as an increased bravado which encouraged him to take bold risks in his artistic interpretation. One such instance of this heightened, brazen interpretation was with his painting, Death of a Virgin in which he depicted the Virgin Mary in death in human form, before her Assumption, rather than death and Assumption occurring simultaneously. This resulted in its removal just two days after its installation adorning its intended altar. Other famous works of Caravaggio during this period included The Crucifixion of Peter, St. Jerome, Judith Beheading Holofernes, and The Seven Works of Mercy.
It would be later in his career that he would paint one of his most notable works, which to our great benefit, resides in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. His painting John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness), 1604, is a haunting masterpiece of a biblical figure that Caravaggio visited artistically many times throughout his career. This infamous work possesses a “lunar-like” lighting, with dry, dead foliage, devoid of religious descriptors such as a halo, sheep, etc. The only indication of its religious nature is a thin cross made of a brown reed depicting Christ’s description of John as a “reed shaken by the wind.” John is seated, deep in thought, seemingly conflicted yet with a childlike quality implying a gentle innocence to his disposition. He is covered in a brilliant red robe that must be observed in person to truly appreciate its beauty.
Every time I have seen this painting at the Nelson I find myself captivated by its incredible ability to almost force induce a reflection to the person viewing it. It truly lends itself to the often described “magnetic quality” of John the Baptist.
Amid his construction of such masterpieces Caravaggio’s personal life continued to create drama as well. At yet another of his many violent altercations Caravaggio killed a man. This act would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life as he would flee from one place to another, dodging attempts on his life. After one attempt not only mistakenly pronounced him dead, but left his face disfigured, Caravaggio painted four more masterpieces including The Denial of Peter, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, Salome with the head of John the Baptist (where he depicted his own head atop the silver platter), and David with the Head of Goliath. Caravaggio would send the last two to Cardinal Scipione Bhorgese, nephew of Pope Paul V, as a sign of remorse in order to plea for a Papal pardon, thusly guaranteeing some peace from constant threats. While in route to be granted said pardon word reached the Pope that Caravaggio had died from a fever. Controversies swirled around his death with theories that he was poisoned topping the list. Recent investigations discovered high levels of lead in his bones, indicating that it may have very well been his medium that eventually killed him. Oil paints at that time contained high amounts of lead. It seems as though we will never officially know.
Despite these theories, the troubled life of Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio gave many precious gifts to the sacred canon of artworks, as his unique style gives us dramatic, strikingly beautiful works that will forever depict the ways in which we visualize some of the most notable subjects of the Bible. Caravaggio received a well-deserved resurgence in popularity in the 20th century recognizing his undeniable influence and contributions to the world of art. One small part of his indelible stamp hangs in our city’s beloved art museum for us to enjoy, reflect, and admire as we continue to remember the life of John the Baptist, specifically his martyrdom in August.
Jeremy Lillig is Director of the Bright Futures Fund for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.