My Love-Hate Relationship with Caravaggio

Caravaggio (detail from The Taking of Christ)

For today’s Mediterranean theme, we’ll take a painter. From a Mediterranean country, clearly. He’s a painter I cannot be indifferent to: I either hate his pictures – or love them.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian painter who lived from 1571 to 1610.

He was famous for his realistic style, his use of light and his remarkable narrative power.

There was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same.

(Robert Hughes)

He was also (in)famous for his private life: he was a hero of bar fights, who was accused of keeping a male lover and who killed a man in a dispute over a woman.

Arrogant, rebellious and a murderer, Caravaggio’s short and tempestuous life matched the drama of his works.

(Entry on Caravaggio, National Gallery)


…after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.

(Floris Claes van Dijk, 1601)

I love him for

But I hate

All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.


Ecce homo
Ecce homo

 St Matthew and the Angel vs The Inspiration of St Matthew

Caravaggio caused a scandal with his painting of St Matthew for the altar of a church in Rome. E. H. Gombrich told what happened in his book, The Story of Art:

Caravaggio, who was a highly imaginative, uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer’s hand as a teacher may do to a child.

St Matthew and the Angel
St Matthew and the Angel

When Caravaggio delivered his picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalised at what they took to be a lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again.

The Inspiration of St Matthew
The Inspiration of St Matthew

The Inspiration of St Matthew is a good picture – of the kind that you can see by the thousands all over Europe in Catholic churches and in art galleries. Eminently forgettable. St Matthew and the Angel on the other hand is one of a kind: innovative, moving, powerful, cathartic. (Sadly, only black & white reproductions of it survive: it was destroyed in World War II.)

Was there ever a clearer case made for artistic freedom?

Image credits: 
All images are public domain, via Wikipedia/Wikimedia/Google Art Project.

You might also like:Beyond Caravaggio: a current exhibition in the National Gallery, London
⇒ Beyond Caravaggio: The Idle Woman's blog post about the exhibition in the National Gallery.
⇒ Christ before the High Priest by Gerrit van Honthorst: a painting influenced by Caravaggio. I love the way the candle concentrates our attention on the antagonism between Caiaphas and Christ and the way the onlookers fade into the background.
⇒ The anecdotal story of the conversation regarding Caravaggio's painting Conversion on the Road to Damascus:
"Why have you put the horse in the middle, and St Paul on the ground?"
"Is the horse God?"
"No, but he stands in God's light!" 
(New World Encyclopeadia: Caravaggio)

11 thoughts on “My Love-Hate Relationship with Caravaggio

  1. Arwen, have you read Peter Robb’s “M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio”? It’s an enjoyable biography built up from contemporary sources, translated in a very engaging and colloquial way. Robb has done a lot of work on the Mafia and his treatment of Caravaggio draws implicit parallels between contemporary organised crime and the crowded, gritty, bloody world of 17th-century Naples and Rome. It seems to be a book that one either loves or hates – Brian Sewell called for it to be pulped, an accolade that the publishers loved so much that they included it as a blurb on the cover – but it brings Caravaggio’s world to life in all its grubby, throbbing and tempestuous reality.

    For what it’s worth, I share your likes and dislikes of his paintings. 🙂 Another personal favourite is his picture of “The Penitent Magdalen”, with its creative viewpoint and the superb painting of her brocade gown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Didn’t know the book, thanks for telling me about it. Sounds interesting! I had a quick look on Amazon but it seems to be out of print – however, there was a book by him titled M: The Caravaggio Enigma. I’m guessing it might be the same as he’s unlikely to have written two books on the very same subject?

      I agree about the Penitent Magdalene and I like some other paintings like The Denial of St Peter and The Calling of St Matthew too but it seemed that the page was already overloaded with Caravaggio pictures as it was. 🙂


      1. Yes, it must be the same book. I’d love t know what you think of you do get round to reading it! One thing’s for sure: even if you don’t warm to it, you’ll never look at Caravaggio in quite the same way again…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Life Memoirs Blog

    Right now I am reading a book “Improbability of love” which is peened down about concept of caravaggio paintings and stories around


  3. Loved that your post about Caravaggio didn’t just go straight into a description of chiaroscuro technique. So he was a brawler? It makes me wonder what he demons were and how they molded him into an artist.

    I once saw one of his works in person – Martyrdom of St John the Baptist. It was a shocking treatment of the subject. He put a lot of thought into the impact on the viewer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought there’d be plenty of information out there about his technique, written by far more qualified people than me. 🙂 So this was more like an introduction to him for people who never came across him, I suppose. I’ve seen the National Gallery exhibition (Beyond Caravaggio) and it was very interesting about the impact he had on others. I wasn’t aware of it beforehand – I’m not very knowledgeable about art history (I wish I was though).


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