Caravaggio, between shadows and lights

Today marks the birth of Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio. A great painter of prefigurations of the streetwise stories, Caravaggio reaches the zenith in his religious works, revolutionizing their language. The two versions of one of his most famous works, Supper at Emmaus, show this clearly. 

“There is also a certain Michelangelo da Caravaggio, who is doing extraordinary things in Rome [...] This Michelangelo has already earned reputation, a good name, and honor with his works. [...] he is one who thinks little of the works of other masters but will not openly praise his own. [...] But one must also take the chaff with the grain: thus, he does not study his art constantly, so that after two weeks of work he will sally forth for two months together with his rapier at his side and his servant-boy after him, going from one tennis court to another, always ready to argue or fight, so that he is impossible to get along with.” A perfect summary from Kerel van Mander, Flemish biographer, poet, and painter.

Michelangelo Merisi known as Caravaggio was born today in 1571; one of the most famous painters of all time. 
A revolutionary, ultramodern artist, seditious, charismatic, and sensual in his style, Caravaggio marked and transformed the 17th century of European painting.

As van Mander recounts, Caravaggio arrived in Rome around the early 1590s, where he deepened his study of the human body. The artistic themes that Caravaggio’s talent proposed to his patrons and audience were prefigurations of the streetwise stories: swindlers, cheats, cardsharps, fortune-tellers, the vagabond life, the pain, and the precariousness of human existence with Basket of Fruit, illness with Young Sick Bacchus. However, it is in his religious scenes – where he tried to create a direct and human connection between the people and the Church – that Caravaggio’s bodies embody the experience of forms.

In one of his most famous works, Supper at Emmaus, the characters show the ability to go far beyond the limits of divine carnality, of their lived experiences, in a contrast that establishes a new semantics through the sacred theme of the work, the typical chromatic force that only Michelangelo Merisi was able to express, articulating it with a previously unknown language. Jesus is the focal point of the scene. A moment, a gesture. Caravaggio’s typical chiaroscuro barely illuminates his weary face. His gaze is directed downward, gentle, welcoming, concentrated on the act he is about to perform: the blessing of the bread.When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30).

The tunic and cloak worn by Christ amplify the same gesture in their folds, as if everything converged towards the movement, as if the garments were part of that sacred gesture. A return to life where bread becomes a sacred emblem, and the distance between Christ’s hands produces and alters the gesture and the object, the bread, which becomes the essence of the moment.

“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight” (Luke 24:31). There are two disciples, one depicted from behind, the other captured in the fullness of his amazement. He has recognized Christ. Cleopas, perhaps, is described with a furrowed brow, leaning toward Jesus. The gesture of his arms is vigorous and strong; he grips the corners of the table, as if to stand up. A simple tunic clothes him, but the white fabric comes alive with movement. Everything vibrates with great intensity; the force of the gesture runs through the disciple’s garments, as he perhaps wants to stop Christ, embrace Him, recognize Him because he had missed doing so before.

Next to him, the wine jug, placed by Caravaggio not by chance. The observer is trapped in the reading path, precise, like the scriptures. From bread to wine. Behind Jesus, the innkeeper, and the maid. The man, no longer young, depicted with a broad furrowed forehead, takes part in the scene by observing Jesus’s blessing gesture. His head is lowered, his chin touches his neck, and his left hand is hidden in his pocket.

The elderly maid, right next to the innkeeper, wears humble, modest clothing and a white bonnet that covers her gathered hair. She is also depicted with a face marked by deep wrinkles.

The figure of the maid is extremely intriguing because she is the only one not looking at Jesus: she keeps her gaze low, almost distracted, absent, while holding a plate with her hands. In the humility of her gesture, she distances herself from the group and the moment, as if nothing were happening, as if her everyday life were untouched by the figure of Jesus or the sanctity of the scene.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1602 ca.

Housed at the National Gallery in London and created by Caravaggio in 1602, another version of the Supper at Emmaus helps us understand this second version.

The general setting is very similar, but the two paintings have substantial differences. One is brighter, with bold colors and richer elements, while the other is darker, simpler, and more contemplative.

The two works were produced only a few years apart, but the style appears very different.

The second version has a more understated composition. Caravaggio paid greater attention to the significance of the moment. He demonstrated a more mature technique, leading to a much higher, more elaborate, and dramatic compositional and expressive result.

This painting was created during a tumultuous period in the life of the Lombard artist. On May 29, 1606, during a brawl, Ranuccio Tomassoni – one of Caravaggio’s opponents – was killed, and it was he who was accused of the murder. In order to escape the death penalty, Caravaggio left Rome and took refuge in Zagarolo, a town not far from the capital.

He was hosted by the Colonna family, with Costanza Colonna being the Marquise of Caravaggio after marrying Francesco Sforza. It was during that time that he painted the second version of the Supper at Emmaus. The artwork was immediately sold to fund his escape. It was purchased by the noble Patrizi family and kept in their family palace in the city center until 1939 when, upon the suggestion of director Ettore Modigliani, it was acquired by the State and destined for the Brera Art Gallery.

Regarding the killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni, Claudio Strinati, an art historian and former superintendent of the Roman museum system, commented: “Caravaggio was a product of his time. Rome was a city of great conflict. In that circumstance, Caravaggio acted according to a frequently observed behavior, and upon examining the case, one could even argue it was in self-defense. Being the greatest of painters, it seems that even that episode is, but not necessarily so.”

Opening image: Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1606

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