Caravaggio: Painting Mythological Scenes and Themes With Knife-edged Contours

Supper at Emmaus  Oil on Canvas  Caravaggio
National Gallery, Central London

"There was art before him and after him, and they were not same." The renowned art critique Robert Huges of Time magazine has said about the master painter Caravaggio.

For the artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of Europe, there were rules to follow. For the artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Europe, there were commandments to obey; there were likes and dislikes of orthodox rulers and the fearful buyers of the art. But one artist decided to play against all of the prevailing rules and commandments. 

This artist created a crowd of controversies by the themes and style of painting he practised. He used the prostitutes as models for the paintings of religious figures. This was met with institutionalised discomfort. But he would not heed to all of the opponents. His name was Caravaggio. He was an Italian artist.  He painted holy events in a realistic style; he painted mythological canvasses with photo-realist accuracy. He borrowed the light from the sun and splashed it onto his canvases. These were the new luggage in the world of art at that point in time.

Caravaggio painted the biblical events in his realistic style of painting. That was unconventional. He chose the subjects from mythological stories, but he painted those stories in the realistic pattern of painting. It was not surprising that Caravaggio was one of the few old masters against whom a big flood of toxic criticism was let loose. Though surrounded by many controversies, he got much fame for his painting “Supper at Emmaus (1600-1601, Oil on canvas, size 54 3/4 x 76 3/4 inches). Presently this painting is in the National Gallery, London. His still-life paintings also are excellent examples of neat realism.  

The Denial of Saint Peter Caravaggio
Oil on Canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City

Details about Caravaggio's life from an authentic source is unavailable. How strange it is. What we get are some court records and municipal notings. That is how we know about his personal life. About his art, he was a gifted artist. If you feel thrilled on seeing the effect of light painted on a canvas, it must be Caravaggio's painting. Normally, it is not necessary for an artist to behave strangely than the normal people living in his or her surrounding. There were a few artists who were quite normal and followed the traditional ways. But Caravaggio, a son of an architect, was an out-of-the-ordinary material. He belonged to the majority of those artists who were used to put the cross on their shoulders and walk on the path they shaped. In short, he was a genuine rebel.

The colour of rebel had percolated into his blood, up to the extent that he became famous for his art of creating enemies, too. And that art of making enemies made his life like the catalogue of events that forced him to run from one place to another. However, he lived a short life (1571 - 1610). This short-lived artist, Caravaggio had infused one strange aspect into the art of painting. He tried infusing the feel of soliloquy, monologue, into his canvases. Soliloquy is defined as the act of speaking one's thoughts aloud. It is done by oneself, regardless of any hearer. This is in respect of dialogues spoken by a character in a play. Shakespeare was a master of this art, which he had used in his plays.

Fediona, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Room of Caravaggio Regional museum od of massina

Style of Painting:  The artist Caravaggio had a rich colour palette; he had an eye to infuse the element like the subtle contrast of light and dark on his canvas. He would use the colours and tones as a perfect musician would use his or her pitch and rhythm. He mainly painted in a style that the viewers would easily understand. His details were so simple.  His art was so realistic. His art was so full of moulded passions.

Caravaggio would paint a figure with knife-edged contours and with masterly perfection. He would represent the motion in a little bit exaggerated manner. His was a period when such a style of painting known as ‘baroque’ was practised by many artists who mainly worked for the churches and courts. In a way, it was a golden period for art in Italy; good artists were in demand.

Caravaggio's art showed religious themes with warm touches and strong impacts. Before this, it was the style of renaissance that the artists practised. These artists narrated calm scenes with rationality. They painted the scenes depicting an event that had happened. The Baroque artist would show the very happening of the events. They would do it with full flow and with its dramatic parts. That would generate the spurt of emotions within the heads and hearts of the viewers; Caravaggio did it very well through his near-realistic paintings.

Cucification of St. Peter

Life of Caravaggio:    Many artists have been criticized for being unrealistic. Caravaggio was criticized for being too realistic. It was his style of depicting the subjects. It was the time when classic idealism, the movement pioneered by great painters like Michelangelo, was the norm for the artists to follow. For the first time, Caravaggio presented religious dramas as contemporary life. That made him a man of difference, a man carrying the flag of rebellion.

Caravaggio walked on a different path by his work. Here is an example. His painting known as “Crucifixion of St. Peter” had created much controversy. It was initially rejected. This painting was one of his masterpiece paintings that looked much realistic. While showing the crucifixion of St Peter, he had tried to depict the authentic reality in every respect. Look at the strained faces and the body language of the three persons doing the job of Crucifixion. Here we can clearly perceive the weight of the wrongdoing on their minds. 

     Ottavio Leoni Portrait of 

The masterly use of lighting and shades had made the figure of St. Peter showing bathed in the angelic glow. The master strokes of light painted on the forehead and the cloth show how Caravaggio can create a divine atmosphere. The artist has succeeded here in depicting his skill of honouring the persuasive clarity and the sense of balance. 

Trained as an apprentice of an artist who had worked under Titian, Caravaggio had a very rich legacy to carry on. During the last ten years of his life, he had produced many masterpieces.

While his stay in Rome he got many commissions from church and other buyers. But his unconventional treatments of religious figures had made him a controversial artist. About one additional controversy that Caravaggio had created: his depiction of physical violence in the paintings was also not received with welcome. 

However, his art of depicting the light and shade with artistic perfection had made him one of the most saleable artists of the time. It is not a wonder why his paintings done with uncompromising reality are considered as the visual vocabulary of European art. [All the images are in Public Domain, taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

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