In my January post ‘The Lady in Blue’ I wrote about why, in Christian art, the Virgin Mary is traditionally clothed in blue.
However, one of my favourite paintings of all time has the Virgin – scandalously – clothed in red. And it is painted by one of the most scandalous characters in the history of Western art. The glorious, the rebellious, the irrepressible, the one and only, Caravaggio!
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is the quintessential Baroque painter. Baroque art and architecture were the Catholic Church’s visual weapons in the war to beat back the Protestant Reformation and, as such, a masterclass in theatre, drama and spiritual transcendence. Which is why it is so gloriously ironic that the greatest proponent of this artistic counteroffensive was a man who lived a wholly irreligious and notorious life – constantly in fights, having to go on the run for committing murder, nearly murdered himself and then dying ignominiously on an Italian beach while on his way back to Rome to ask for a pardon from the Pope.
Caravaggio trailblazed a painting style called Tenebrism. Tenebrism uses extreme light and shadow to sculpt the scene, creating a highly theatrical and dramatic effect as if we were viewing a scene on a stage rather than in a painting. Many of Caravaggio’s works have an equally theatrical, and often red, curtain in the composition – here the trademark drape takes up over a third of the painting.
But what makes this painting so scandalous is not its theatricality, but its reality. To impart the message of the artwork to the illiterate faithful, Christian artists would endow the saints with attributes so that they could be easily identified. For instance, St Lucy is typically portrayed carrying a platter bearing a pair of eyes as her own eyes were gouged out in the process of her martyrdom. But here Caravaggio employs no attributes and hence we cannot know for certain who each attending figure is.
But even worse than this is the portrayal of the Virgin herself.
Not only is she in red, but she is in an everyday dress with the fastening slightly undone, with her hair awry, and her feet filthy and bare! She truly looks dead. (Portrayals of this scene in Christian art are rare and often symbolic rather than real.) And just to add to Caravaggio’s already infamous reputation, the rumour went round that the figure of the Virgin in the painting was modelled on that of a murdered prostitute who had been dragged, bloated, from the Tiber.
The only saintly reference is the delicate golden halo above the Virgin’s head.
But what a unique, touching and emotive portrayal of grief Caravaggio has achieved. Scandals aside, the painting remains a sublime depiction of the scene.
That’s Caravaggio for you. A painter who was as scandalous in his painting as he was in his life and yet produced works of exquisite spirituality.
And I love him!
Do you have a favourite painting? And is it scandalous?