One of the best-known artists of the Renaissance, Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio changed the course of art history by introducing particularly bold innovations in regards to composition, the use of light and the interpretation of mythical themes.
The Renaissance period was a definite historical milestone in every possible aspect of human activity. After the Crusades, the Black Death and Great famines of the Middle Ages came a period of consolidation. The return to the Antiquity and the human reason brought an entirely different world view, which was followed by the increasing urbanization of European societies, a process related to the conquering of other continents. The Italian cities–states were more or less led by extremely wealthy families of merchants who were often affiliated with the Papal regime, meaning that artists such as Caravaggio were able to receive lavish funding for their works, regardless of whether they were public or private commissions.
For a short period of time, Caravaggio was among the top-ranked painters in Rome, but due to his bohemian lifestyle, the artist was legally prosecuted and considered a mad man. He became an outcast, which ultimately resulted in his sudden death in 1610. Nevertheless, Caravaggio’s contribution to the development of painting is grand, and it is still being analyzed by various scholars.
In order to honor this outstanding painter, we decided to feature five of the most iconic Caravaggio paintings which showcase not only his artistic mastery but his personal struggle as well.
Editors’ Tip: Caravaggio: Complete Works
This work offers a comprehensive reassessment of Caravaggio’s entire œuvre with a catalogue raisonné of his works. Each painting is reproduced in large format, with recent, high production photography allowing for dramatic close-ups with Caravaggio's ingenious details of looks and gestures.
Featured image: Caravaggio - The Calling of Saint Matthew, detail, 1599-1600. Oil on canvas. 340 cm x 322 cm. Collection Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Image creative commons.
The first Caravaggio painting masterpiece on our list is perhaps one of his best-known artworks - The Calling of Saint Matthew. This outstanding composition located at the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome depicts the situation in which Jesus Christ is calling Matthew to follow him. Along with two other Caravaggio paintings, The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (painted around the same time as the Calling) and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, it forms a series devoted to the life and becoming of this saint.
All of these Caravaggio artworks are commissioned by the church according to the specific instructions prescribed by the late Cardinal Matthieu Cointerel in his will. One of the most popular Roman painters and Caravaggio’s former employer, Cavalier D'Arpino painted the dome of the chapel, but since he was very busy, Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, the head of the Vatican office for Church property and Caravaggio’s patron, decided to hire him instead and provide him the first proper commission.
This particular Caravaggio painting is based on the chapter form Gospel of Matthew - Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him: "Follow me", and Matthew rose and did so. Caravaggio represented him as the tax collector sitting at a table surrounded by four other figures. Jesus Christ and Saint Peter are shown as newcomers; Jesus is pointing straight at Matthew, while a ray of light illuminates the faces of the men at the table who are looking at him.
Featured image: Caravaggio - The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599-1600. Oil on canvas. 340 x 322 cm. Collection Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Image creative commons.
The following Caravaggio painting is called Judith Beheading Holofernes and was produced in between 1598 and 1599. This highly dramatic Old Testament scene painted by Caravaggio features the widow Judith decapitating the Syrian general Holofernes. This masterpiece belongs to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica collection in Rome.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio decided to present the figures in a theatrical manner – they are lit from the side, juxtaposed against the black background. Judith's maid Abra stands beside her on the right as Judith holds a blade against the neck of Holofernes, who is in an apparent state of shock. All the faces are masterfully painted and show a high level of emotions.
The scholars believe that the courtesan Fillide Melandroni served as the model for Judith, since she posed for several other Caravaggio paintings. The scene was inspired presumably by the notorious execution of Beatrice Cenci, a young noble Roman woman who stood against her abusive father.
Featured image: Caravaggio - Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598-1599. Oil on canvas, 145 x 195 cm. Collection Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. Image creative commons.
Next up is the painting The Young Sick Bacchus, also known as the Self-Portrait as Bacchus or Sick Bacchus, made shortly after Caravaggio arrived in Rome from his native Milan. This Caravaggio painting is located in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
According to historical resources, Caravaggio suffered from malaria and hepatic disease, so he was treated at Santa Maria della Consolazione hospital for six months. The work was painted with the help of a mirror, and apparently, the artist made it in order to promote his virtuous style in painting still life and portraits. The impression of the artist’s suffering is striking, while the still-life is similar as in the works Boy With a Basket of Fruit and the Boy Bitten by a Lizard - although the fruits are fresh there, which tells much of Caravaggio’s’ mental and physical state.
Featured image: Caravaggio - Young Sick Bacchus, 1593. Oil on canvas, 67 x 53 cm. Collection Louvre Museum. Image creative commons.
The first version of this captivating masterpiece titled Medusa was produced around 1596 and 1597, and is also known as Murtula, referring to the name of the poet Gaspare Murtola, who wrote about Caravaggio paintings, this one in particular. It is signed "Michel Angelo Fecit", or "Michel Angelo made this" in Latin, referring to Caravaggio's first name.
The second version dated in 1597 is bigger and is not signed. This Caravaggio painting belongs to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
Featured image: Caravaggio - Medusa, 1597-1598. Oil on canvas, 60 x 55 cm. Collection Uffizi Gallery. Image creative commons.
The last on our Caravaggio list is the painting Narcissus, painted between 1597 and 1599. This impeccable composition features the mythological theme found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis; a young man falls in love with his own reflection and eventually dies of longing after himself. This story was very popular in the Renaissance and was embraced by the authors such as Dante and Petrarch. This Caravaggio painting is now housed in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio depicted an adolescent wearing an elegant outfit, leaning over the water, as he stares passionately at this own reflection. The painting is an epitome of melancholy, as the figure of Narcissus is surrounded by darkness, and he is locked inside his looped self-reflection. This work can be considered as a highly personal statement, due to the fact that Caravaggio was a queer man.
Featured image: Caravaggio - Narcissus, 1594/1596. Oil on canvas. 110 x 92 cm. Collection Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. Image creative commons.