Exhibition: ‘Beyond Caravaggio’

Article by Ipek Kozanoglu

In his short, yet vibrant life, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio produced some of the greatest artworks during the Baroque era, so much so that a group of followers, (named much later as the Caravaggisti), imitated his style and spread it around Europe. The style of Caravaggio includes extreme light and dark contrasts, dramatic light sources, shadows, and emotions which captivate figures either juxtaposed against or emerging from very dark backgrounds. 

From 17th June to 24th September, Edinburgh housed its first ever Caravaggio exhibition. The exhibition, which was held in the National Gallery in London a year before, contained four paintings by Caravaggio in Edinburgh. The rest of the exhibition was dedicated to the famous followers of Caravaggio, the Caravaggisti. (Hence the name of the exhibition ‘Beyond Caravaggio’.) 

'Boy Bitten by a Lizard' by Caravaggio sourced from The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/server.iip?FIF=%2Ffronts%2FN-6504-00-000048-WZ-PYR.tif&CNT=1.0&WID=800&HEI=800&QLT=85&CVT=jpeg

'Boy Bitten by a Lizard' by Caravaggio sourced from The National Gallery, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/server.iip?FIF=%2Ffronts%2FN-6504-00-000048-WZ-PYR.tif&CNT=1.0&WID=800&HEI=800&QLT=85&CVT=jpeg

Having missed the opportunity to visit the London exhibition a year before, I was thrilled to visit the exhibition in Edinburgh last month. The exhibition was quite small with the first room showing a sort of short documentary about Caravaggio and the exhibition. Three experts on Caravaggio shed light on Caravaggio’s troubled past and the events which shaped his vision. Even though there were only four works by Caravaggio in the exhibition, their size and dominating nature made up for the lack of Caravaggio paintings in the exhibition. 

Having Caravaggio’s work placed side by side with those of the Caravaggisti provided the chance to compare and contrast the similarities, differences and the exchange of style between the paintings. The influences in style were so strikingly similar that it almost became impossible to differentiate the four monumental works by Caravaggio from the other thirty produced by his followers. 

The collection itself included very important and famous works by Caravaggio such as The Supper at Emmaus (1601, below left), Boy Bitten by a Lizard (c. 1594-5) and The Taking of Christ (1602). My personal favourite was The Taking of Christ (1602, the painting at the top of the article). It depicts the moment of the kiss of Judas, which is when Christ is betrayed and taken away by Judas. The huge scale which was normally used for history painting conveys the emotion of Christ in such a realistic way that Christ appears humane, while his grief and feelings of betrayal are fully identifiable, adding to the captivating nature of the work. 

Surprisingly, The Taking of Christ was discovered by a Jesuit resident in Ireland in 1990. Early on, around 1802, it was owned by William Hamilton Nisbet, a wealthy Scotsman who bought the painting in Rome during the ‘Grand Tour’, which was kept in Biel House in East Lothian. It was the only Caravaggio painting to be held in the Scottish private collection for over 200 years, according to the curator of the exhibition, Aidan Weston Lewis. At the time the work was made, Caravaggio was not very popular, and so the painting did not have any value until the middle of the 20th century, like works by other painters, such as Johannes Vermeer and Van Gogh. 

Other works included were Christ before the High Priest (c. 1617) by Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert (c. 1626) by Hendrick Ter Brugghen, The Four Ages of Man (c. 1629) by Valentin de Boulogne, Lamentation over the Dead Christ (early 1620s, picture on the above, right) by Jusepe de Ribera, and Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom (c. 1615-16) by Guido Reni. 

My favourite painting by the Caravaggisti was Christ before the High Priest (c. 1617). The dramatic light source gives the painting a warmth not just in colour but in feeling as well. Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and dark to intensify emotions in paintings and his choice of subject matter, which usually drew figures and faces from the public to familiarise the audience with religious contexts, were innovations on their own. These innovations did not just inspire a group of people to do the same, which helped spread this style to the rest of the world, but it also marked a huge starting point in the art world where art became more accessible and relatable to the public. The dirt, grime, and the non-idealised, common faces confers a dramatic realism on the work. Everyday life settings and scenes featuring important religious and holy figures were fundamental innovations in art that Caravaggio fuelled, and which made these paintings timeless and universal. Even though they were produced in the 17th century, Caravaggio’s works, and those of his followers, can speak to us and appeal to our emotions even now in the 21st century. 

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-40292815. All pictures were sourced from The National Gallery. 

ST.ART Magazine