Caravaggio is the perfect artist for our modern, divided era

For a Caravaggio nut like me, it’s been a good month. A trip to Malta, taking my son to visit his grandmother, presented an opportunity to pay a return visit to the St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, which houses his masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist.

Back in England, I went to Beyond Caravaggio, an exhibition at the National Gallery of a handful of his paintings surrounded by artworks by lesser mortals. The Taking of Christ, borrowed from the National Gallery of Ireland, is worth the price of admission alone. Neither the furious cathedral attendants shouting at bemused Germans to stop taking pictures of the St John painting, nor the hideous (and customary) overcrowding at the National’s show could stop me basking in Caravaggio’s genius.

This double dose of the Italian master gave me a chance to consider what it is about Caravaggio that makes him such a favourite with modern audiences, both religious and secular. He fell out of favour for centuries but is now loved in a way that few painters are. His blood-spattered backstory certainly piques people’s interest, but focusing on the art itself is far more instructive when trying to understand his wide-ranging appeal.

Aside from his initial period of painting still lives and scenes of musicians and card sharps, Caravaggio’s work is almost exclusively religious in nature. In trying to work out why, despite this, he is as beloved in secular circles as religious ones, an intriguing paradox emerges. It seems to me that the faithful and non-believers are entranced by the exact same qualities in Caravaggio’s art: his dramatic rendering of light and the unvarnished realism of his figures that combine to make his scenes spring from their canvases like stills from a film.

When Caravaggio first set to work in Rome in the late 16th century, this was art like no other. Its visceral humanity was at odds with the accepted style of depicting saints and other religious figures in idealised terms. Caravaggio was fighting against the Middle Ages’ answer to airbrushing and wasn’t afraid to populate his religious scenes with the prostitutes and street-dwellers he lived among. His saints show their dirty feet and, in one infamous case, a horse’s rear end is given prominent display. Yet while Caravaggio scandalised some, his art gained instant popularity, he found wealthy patrons and, as Beyond Caravaggio aims to demonstrate, his influence rapidly spread.

It’s no surprise that he found success so quickly. With his audience so used to a formulaic style of religious art, to see these new and all-too-human depictions of familiar stories from Scripture must have been an exhilarating experience for the faithful. The Beheading of St John the Baptist shows us the saint being butchered by an impassive killer in a desolate prison yard. St John’s body is a sickly green. Inmates look on as if watching a sporting spectacle; an attendant quietly gets on with his job, pointing to the silver platter upon which St John’s head will be presented by Salome to Herod. Yet, as is so often the case with Caravaggio, amid the dirty, dark realism, transcendent light shines. As the art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon points out in his excellent biography of the artist, the foot of the saint is illuminated: a subtle sign of God’s presence in an otherwise terrifying world.

The power that this vast painting must have held over the Knights of St John, about to go off to war and possibly be martyred themselves at the hands of the Turks, would surely have been quite overwhelming. I simply can’t see how an artwork such as this, with the crimes of ISIS fresh in everyone’s minds, could fail to inspire the devout in a similar way today.

Yet, despite the overtly religious subject matter, this has not put off a mainstream culture usually allergic to anything even remotely religious from embracing Caravaggio. The gritty reality depicted on canvas combined with the artist’s dynamic sense of composition does so much to emphasise the religious nature of these stories to a devout viewer. But this also allows a secular person to view the paintings as scenes of tumultuous and complex human drama.

Again, it’s worth citing The Beheading of St John the Baptist here. Even if a viewer didn’t understand, or care about, the religious context, it remains one of the most devastating scenes of human barbarity anyone is ever likely to witness in art.

Caravaggio is, then, the perfect artist for our modern, divided era. For the faithful, he portrays Christianity in the starkest and most profound way possible. For non-believers, he presents humanity in all of its darkness and light.

Beyond Caravaggio is at the National Gallery in London until January 15


This article first appeared in the November 4 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here