Category Archives: 17th century

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon

caravaggio book

Of the half a dozen mass market art paperbacks you might find in your local good book store, there may be at least two biographies of Michaelangelo Caravaggio.

In addition to this, the latest, there may be another recent account by Peter Robb. That book, called M, emulates the passions of the painter’s life with a lyrical, some might say hysterical, tone.

So plaudits should go to Graham-Dixon’s balanced account. Whether digging up period documents or looking closely at the paintings themselves it is a better read.

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane debunks the conspiracy theories surrounding the painter’s tempestuous life. Not assassinated, he quite likely died of a heart attack.

Of course some circumstances remain mysterious. However the artist escaped from a dungeon on Malta, thrown there by the island’s Knights, is to this day a riddle.

Likewise, there will always be something shadowy about Caravaggio’s nocturnal activities in Rome. Graham-Dixon suggests he was a pimp, one of the book‘s shocks

Another topic of wonder concerns the painter‘s craft. He appears to be self-taught. He never bothered to draw. And yet, he became one of Europe‘s most influential talents.

Graham-Dixon even tracks his influence as far as modern day Hollywood, as we learn that Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorcese owes its urban sensibility and lighting to the painter.

But what to make of his argumentativeness, his ever present sword and dagger. He even went so far as to sleep fully armed in Sicily, a man on the run.

That image too, is a gift to cinema or literature, but has there ever been an artist in fiction with quite as much violence and passion as this real archetype, possibly not.

Incidentally, while still reading this book I came across reference to a 1994 exhibition in Floria Brown Gallery, Woody Creek, Colorado called Two Guys With Guns Making Art.

Those two “guys” were William S Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson, neither primarily known for the plastic arts, but unwitting heirs of Caravaggio all the same.

This book can be found in your nearest good bookshop or, if you must, Amazon, along with a deluge of titles devoted to the life of Caravaggio.

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700

Published on Culture24

The Sacred Made Real at The National Gallery, London, until January 2010

As you would expect from a pallid corpse in a darkened room, Dead Christ draws quite a crowd. Gregorio Fernández’s wooden bier is surrounded by a dozen curious visitors. If this was a roadside, they would be driving past slowly, rubbernecking.

Thanks to 17th century special effects, the mortal wounds seem still fresh. Tree bark forms coagulated blood. A bull’s horn has been carved into fingernails. Glass has been used for half-closed eyes.

The pathos is heightened by spotless, sculpted white sheets and a heavily embroidered pillow. These touches are perverse, given that no one has wiped the blood from Jesus’ lifeless skin or thought to cover him up out of respect.

But that is really the point of polychrome sculpture, an artform for churchgoers rather than gallery visitors, which offers an immediate experience of the horrors and marvels of the Passion and the lives of saints.

Some guilt-inducing religious pieces result. Cristo de los Desamparados by Juan Martínez Montañés hangs off the cross with a dead weight that makes the nails strain. Ecce Homo by Pedro de Mena disrupts the conventions of classical art splattering blood across Christ’s otherwise perfectly toned back.

This is the first time such works have been seen alongside contemporaneous Spanish painting. It suggests their influence has been overlooked.

Indeed artists like Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurburán would have trained in guilds of painting where polychrome sculptures were brought for colouration. Owing to some baroque-era red tape, sculptors were not allowed to do this for themselves.

Now several paintings are displayed alongside three-dimensional works which could have directly inspired them. Immaculate Conception by Velázquez, for example, sits next to a stunning and very similar Madonna by Montañés.

All of which suggests that a Spanish tradition of realist painting, from Velázquez and Zurburán onwards, can be traced back to the work of some little-known sculptors. You cannot deny the impact of the examples on display here.