Saturday, April 16, 2011

Caravaggio Churches

Three churches in Rome had major Caravaggio paintings still hanging in the chapels for which they were created four hundred years ago. Seeing them was one of the experiences I most keenly anticipated in traveling to Rome, and the reality was even more exciting than the anticipation.

Sant' Agostino

This church was hard to find because it was surrounded by modest residential buildings and did not face onto a street or piazza. But inside – over a small altar in a side chapel – hung the great Caravaggio known as the Madonna di Loreto, where the Christ child looked to be about four years old, a substantial load in the arms of the Virgin standing at the entrance to the Holy House (transported through the air from the Holy Land). Below her at the base of the steps an old married couple knelt, pilgrims whose large dirty feet faced the viewer, and there was this amazing and symbolic Baroque spiral inside the picture starting at the naked peasant feet at lower right and winding upwards to culminate at top left in the noble shoulders and head of the unbelievably beautiful brunette who posed for the Mother of God – a harlot in real life no doubt, as my daughter observed.

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Santa Maria del Popolo

There were two more Caravaggio paintings on the side walls of the Cerasi Chapel inside Santa Maria del Popolo. The Crucifixion of St. Peter on the left and the Conversion of St. Paul on the right. The diagonal distortions of perspective inside the two pictures only really made sense to me after I had studied the spaces they were painted for – the way in which Caravaggio took the viewer's vision (from below and sideways) into account and actually exploited the difficult angle. I felt also every time I saw another Caravaggio in person that it gave off far brighter sparks of aliveness than I could ever have imagined from reproductions – an impression that did not strike me so forcefully in the work of any other painter.

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San Luigi dei Francesi

San Luigi was the pinnacle – three masterpieces in the small Contarelli Chapel, together telling the life story of St. Matthew. He is seen on the left being called by Christ, in the center inspired by an angel to write his Gospel, and on the right suffering martyrdom. Most beautiful of all was to see the sunlight in the Calling of Matthew streaming into the painting at exactly the same angle that true daylight fell across the work through the arched window at the back of the chapel. In fact the light source in all three paintings reproduced the literal light from that window. How many other paintings now isolated in museums have been deprived forever of certain secrets they contained before they were removed from their first locations? All six of these Caravaggios would have been removed from their churches during the Napoleonic Wars and taken to the Louvre as booty if the French art experts assigned to pillage Rome had not chosen to ignore Caravaggio because his work was so thoroughly out of fashion at that period.