Caravaggio’s ripple effect
THE artist depicts St John in the wilderness but, unusually, as a young man.
The National’s curator of its new show, Letizia Treves, says the result is a work of “astonishing modernity” by one of the most revolutionary figures in art, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).
In Beyond Caravaggio, which opened on Wednesday, Treves has brought together 49 paintings, most from British and Irish stately homes, castles, museums, churches and private collections. The young St John, however, is via Kansas City.
At one time or another 70 per cent of the works here were thought to be by Caravaggio, says Treves, though scholars now give only six in this show by his hand. For the rest, and the focus of this exhibition, are from contemporaries who knew him, others who did not, and those who followed as admirers or copiers of his style.
The artist’s legacy is to be found in his use of an intense naturalism and dramatic lighting and, above all for Treves, in his “storytelling”, which had an immense impact on the others with “a kind of ripple effect”.
In 1672 a biographer wrote that the young painters in Rome, where the Milanese Caravaggio arrived in about 1592, flocked to him as “the only true imitator of nature, looking upon his works as miracles”.
This is all the more remarkable given that he did not have pupils and did not travel much until on the run from the law after quitting Rome following the infamous fatal fight with one Ranuccio Tomassioni.
Beyond Caravaggio is a dark show with immense drama in the extensive use of strongly contrasting lighting, chiaroscuro. But one notable illumination is to be found in the 1602 The Taking of Christ, on loan from Dublin, where Caravaggio includes a self-portrait.
Among the most striking of the non-Caravaggios are Christ Displaying his Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli and works by both Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi.
The monumental Christ Before the High Priest by Gerrit van Honthorst is from the National’s own collection but there are many gems that are rarely displayed publicly. Among those lent by the Queen are the earliest Caravaggio here, Boy Peeling Fruit, c1592, which Treves says “elevates” a subject from everyday life, and an oil from a decade or so after Caravaggio’s untimely death, Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop, by the artist only known as “The Candlelight Master”.
• Beyond Caravaggio, National Gallery, WC2 until January 15. £16, concessions available.