Beyond Caravaggio

National Gallery, London, until January 15

Jointly organised by the National Galleries of London, Dublin and Edinburgh, this exhibition takes the opportunity to bring to prominence the few paintings by Caravaggio in British Isles collections, and to present them in proximity with works by artists who, for the most part, were influenced by him. The National Gallery of Ireland has a particularly fine group of Caravaggisti and there are important paintings in Scotland. Without the participation of both these galleries, the exhibition would have been impossible.

There are just sufficient examples by Caravaggio to justify the inclusion of his name in the exhibition title, not least because by chance his whole career can be seen within it, in miniature.

The early Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c 1594-95) exemplifies Caravaggio’s infatuation with young male models and exquisitely painted still life. St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (c 1603-04), a spectacular loan from Kansas City, shows a sulky-looking adolescent, beautifully modelled and young: a new way of representing the Baptist which would be adopted by Guido Reni among others. The National Gallery’s Supper at Emmaus of 1601 and Dublin’s The Taking of Christ, painted in 1602, as a pendant to the Emmaus painting, look marvellous.

Such masterpieces exemplify what his contemporaries considered to be Caravaggist. The figures are half-length, are painted from life and are lit from the top left. Still-life details are brilliant – see the fruit and food in the Emmaus and the armour in the Taking of Christ. His handling of drapery has a great sense of weight and texture, while his characterisation is terrific. The sombre Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, painted with abbreviated brushstrokes, marked chiaroscuro and the muted palette (characteristic of his final period) has an overwhelming sense of pathos and guilt. In this company, Sir Denis Mahon’s insistence that the National Gallery buy it in 1970 is shown to have been vital.

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