Weekend

Caravaggio’s Fascination with Death

The artist’s last two paintings are as impetuous, violent, and racked with guilt as Caravaggio was himself.

Caravaggio, "The Denial of Saint Peter" (1610), oil on canvas, 37" x 49 3/8", collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Caravaggio, “The Denial of Saint Peter” (1610), oil on canvas, 37″ x 49 3/8″, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Caravaggio is a disturbing, unsavory, alluring, provocative, and for some, polarizing figure. No one would accuse him of being tender or a humanist. Some might say that he lacked empathy, but that could also be said of Andy Warhol  or Roy Lichtenstein. His favorite subjects were murder, martyrdom, lying, and cheating. A man who loved to swagger through the streets armed with a sword and dagger, he was a loner blessed with faithful friends, such as the painter Mario Minnitti, his one-time model  and, later, briefly his protector. This and other paradoxes make it hard for us to feel at ease with his work.

Pride and violence, set off by a short fuse  and racked by guilt, infused a sense of fated destiny that was central to Caravaggio’s character. He was also a show-off. In contrast to his contemporaries, who used drawing  as an intermediate step to resolve the transition from model to  painting, he preferred to work it all out on the canvas.

For this and other reasons, a number of respected authorities have declared that Caravaggio is the beginning of modern painting. I don’t know if any of this matters much to me because I am not sure what it means to be a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings. However, while in Rome some years ago, my wife and I devoted one day to looking only at work by Caravaggio, including “Narcissus” (1597-99), which is in the National Gallery of Ancient Art.

I thought about “Narcissus” when I went to see Caravaggio’s Last Two Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 11 – July 9, 2017). The paintings are “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula”  and “The Denial of Saint Peter” (both 1610), done in the months before he died, on his way to Rome in hopes of receiving a Papal pardon for murder.  (Had there been a movie of Caravaggio’s last days, I think Alain Delon would have been perfect for the part).

This is what the museum’s press release has to say about these paintings, which are displayed on adjacent walls:

Commissioned by the Genoese patrician Marcantonio Doria two months before the artist’s death in July 1610, Caravaggio painted The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula in an unprecedented minimalist style; its interpretation of the tragic event that is its subject, combined with the abbreviated manner of painting, has only one parallel: The Denial of Saint Peter.

Although the paintings were together in a corner of the gallery, I spent almost the entire time looking at “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula,” perhaps because I did not know the details of this lurid story, which is said to have happened in the late fourth century. By the time Caravaggio took it up as subject, more than a thousand years later, the legend had gained many additions and variations.

This is the story in a nutshell. After a number of adventures and miracles, Ursula and eleven thousand virgin handmaidens set sail from Britain  and arrived in Cologne, ostensibly to try and persuade the Huns to stop their march toward Rome. When Ursula refused to marry the general, which is what she had to do to change his mind, he shot her with a bow and arrow and the eleven thousand handmaidens were beheaded.

This is what Keith Christiansen, head of European Painting at the Met, told artnet news:

Having escaped imprisonment in Malta and worked in Sicily, he arrived in Naples hoping to gain a pardon for the killing he committed in Rome in 1606. He was then attacked and his face slashed, and in Rome rumors spread that he had been killed. It’s at this point he painted the two pictures on view.

Both are paintings of contrasts, starting with darkness and light, albeit one that is gloomy and hushed. There is no sunlight. The darkness hints at an incomprehensible vastness, which threatens to envelop the figures. There are five figures in “The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula.”  Caravaggio focuses on the moment the arrow has pierced Saint Ursula, the moment she realizes that she is mortally wounded. The general holds the bow, its string still vibrating. His face is grizzled, lined, leathery, scrunched up, and old, while hers is smooth and ashen. An embittered old man has destroyed an innocent young woman;  age has had its revenge on youth.

Caravaggio, "The Martyrdom of St Ursula" (1610), oil on canvas, 56 1/4" x 70 7/8", Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples.
Caravaggio, “The Martyrdom of St Ursula” (1610), oil on canvas, 56 1/4″ x 70 7/8″, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples.

Both the general and Saint Ursula are wearing red, which binds them together, as well as separates them. The sleeves of his uniform are darker than the voluminous folds of her shawl that drape her body below the arrow. He is wearing a breastplate with an embossed lion’s head, a sign of his animal ferocity, strength, and leadership.  Ursula’s muslin undergarment is dirty  next to her flawless skin, and does nothing to protect her. The arrow has pierced it.

Her hands are gently pressing the wound. The thumbs point upward, as if to form a niche for the arrow, while she stares down at, impassive. There is no sign of suffering and she is not looking to the heavens for salvation. All her attention is on the arrow and the knowledge of her impending death. She is on the right side of the painting, hemmed in by three figures. The general occupies the left side, taking up a wider expanse. His arm holding the bow is thrust forward at a diagonal. While this connects him to Saint Ursula, the position betrays the flight of the arrow: he could not have shot  it into her from that position, but it does not matter. Meanwhile, a hand reaches out from the darkness and floats between them, fingers  outspread, as if measuring the distance between bow and wound.

The hand presumably belongs to the figure in the shadows, standing between the general and Ursula. I find it disconcerting that while his hand is floating between the general and the saint,  his gaze is focused behind the general, suggesting that the reactions of his head and hand  are occurring in separate dominions. This disconnectedness runs throughout the painting. Nobody is making eye contact. Everyone is looking in a different direction. The armored soldier angled in on the far right and the general on the left  are the only ones looking at the wounded woman. The sectioned armor  covering the soldier’s arm on the far right is insect-like,  yet the crook of the elbow makes it appear  as if he is about to embrace her.

Caravaggio, “David with the Head of Goliath” (1610), oil on canvas, 49″ x 40″, Galleria Borghese.

A head is visible between the soldier on the right and Ursula’s pinned-back hair. It is thought to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio. It harkens back to another painting Caravaggio did earlier that year, “David and Goliath” (1610), in which the severed head is supposed to be that of the artist.

Caravaggio’s head, which seems to be resting on the nape of Ursula’s neck, is squeezed in by a hand holding a lance at a slight diagonal (it belongs to the soldier between the general and the Saint)  and the helmeted head of the soldier on the far right.  The artist is portraying himself as a rubbernecker craning to see what is going on. Long before Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about the mind-body problem, Caravaggio recognized that they were separate. That bodiless head adds a distressing note to the painting. What is that fascinates him? What is he desperate to see?

I don’t think Caravaggio’s Narcissus was looking at his reflection. In that flattened, impossible space, he saw something else in his mind’s eye. Robert Creeley’s line, “the darkness surrounds us, what can we do against it,” comes to mind.

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