Caravaggio: Reason and Revolution

Brad Miner | June 8, 2020

Mchelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) created fewer than 100 paintings (that we know of), of which 65 have religious/Biblical themes. His Catholic paintings began with Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy (1595, when he was 24) and culminated with six painted in the year of his death at 38, the last being The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula.

Some skepticism is justified in assigning academic categories to artists in their time. Certainly, Caravaggio never thought of himself as a Late-Renaissance or Mannerist or Early-Baroque painter.  He was a young man in a hurry and probably never worried about his place in the pantheon of artists. And, although the case may certainly be made that Leonardo da Vinci (d. 1519) was the greatest figure of the Renaissance (not just an artist but an inventor too) or that Michelangelo Buonarroti (d. 1564) was the greatest artist of the period (a master of sculpture, painting, and architecture), it is Caravaggio who was the greatest painter – and not just of his own period but of all time. That’s my opinion anyhow.

Caravaggio was orphaned at an early age and spent his teenage years as an artist’s apprentice in Milan (Caravaggio is the name of the town of his birth), before moving south to Rome, which is where most of his finest work was done. Rome was a place of power and patronage, and, besides, he was fleeing the Milanese police, one of whom he’d wounded in a brawl. Caravaggio was famous for carrying a sword around town, which was illegal at the time.

It is not uncommon for artists to paint a particular subject more than once. Caravaggio, for instance, did four versions of his earliest known painting, Boy Peeling Fruit (1592-93), and he did two versions of what I think was his greatest subject, Supper at Emmaus – one in 1602 (now in London’s National Gallery) and the other in 1606 (at Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan).

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