Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio (Review Article)

By Matthew Becker

This past year marked the 400th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), not to be confused with the person whom Caravaggio sought to surpass in artistic greatness, namely, the more well-known Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). While I had learned of Caravaggio from my college art instructor, Larry Gross, I did not really become “attached” to the Italian artist until the day of my ordination into the pastoral ministry. On that date, July 16, 1989, my childhood pastor, Rev. Dr. L. Dean Hempelmann, preached a sermon on the call of Matthew (Matthew 9). The connection between that scriptural text and my ordination was obvious, but what wasn’t obvious to me at the time was the connection Dean would make between my ordination and Caravaggio’s painting of the Matthean text, “The Calling of St. Matthew.” That painting, which hangs in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi Dei Francesi in Rome, was the basis for a special banner that Dr. Hempelmann’s wife, Cathy, made for the occasion. Prominent on the banner is the hand of Jesus that creatively summons Matthew the tax collector to leave his shady business and follow the light beckoning him.


A few years ago my wife and I spent an enjoyable week in the eternal city on the occasion of our 15th wedding anniversary. I was especially eager to view the Caravaggio piece in the side altar that is the Contarelli Chapel. I was so moved by that work of art that I bought a print of it that now hangs above the harmonium in our living room. Each day as I leave for my “calling” at Valparaiso University I pass “the Calling of St. Matthew.” Such a passing allows me to remember both my baptism (the call to faith, hope, and love) and my ordination into the holy ministry (the divine call into ministry).


Dean’s sermon title was actually “the Creative Call.” Commenting on Caravaggio’s painting, he emphasized how the artist “of dark and light” had formed the hand of Christ to be identical to the hand of Adam at the center of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Sistine Chapel. Just as God creatively called the first Adam to life, so Jesus, the second Adam, calls Matthew out of the old life and into the new one. He will now leave his ill-gotten gain and luxurious life behind in order to become a poor follower of the poor Christ. Clearly, Caravaggio wants us to understand Matthew’s call as a kind of second creation, a creative call.


What brings all this to mind of late has been the wonderful biography of Caravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon that appeared last year, just in time for the quadricentennial anniversary of its subject’s death: Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (London: Penguin, 2010). It has been on my stack of “must reads” since last fall, and I finally was able to finish it last night. What a wonderful tale of woe and grandeur, of sorrow, pain, suffering, and death, but also of artistic genius, theological profundity, and cultural expanse. Graham-Dixon does a marvelous job of bringing the reader up-to-speed on the latest Caravaggio scholarship while not overwhelming one with too much extraneous detail.


More than a decade in the making, the book moves from Caravaggio’s modest beginnings in Milan, where his family had some connections to the nobility, to examine his experiences in Rome, where he would be recognized as a truly great artist but also would be held in contempt for his tempestuous and prideful personality that frequently led him to argue and fight. Eventually it would cause him to kill a man in a duel. Fleeing Rome because of the capital charge of murder against him, Caravaggio made his way to Naples, where he did not stay for very long, and then to Malta, where he hoped to become a Knight of St. John. Through his few favorable connections he was able to secure such a knighthood, but once again his argumentative nature got the better of him, he wounded an important fellow knight, was thrown into prison, escaped from the prison, fled to Sicily, and finally back to Naples, where he was involved in yet another brawl, probably a vendetta attack, in which he was severely wounded. He would later die from these wounds.


So his life was unusually colorful, sinful, dark, and yet also full of grace, light, artistic genius, and divine mercy (at least in his art). Friend of prostitutes, amorous homosexuals, young boys, and fellow artistic sinners, Caravaggio lived on the wild side. He depicted a realism in his paintings that was scandalous to many, captivating to his benefactors, and essentially ignored for centuries after his death. Eventually, in the twentieth century, his work would be prized for both its realism and its technique. There is no question that his paintings are among the most theologically astute and thought-provoking in the western tradition.


Graham-Dixon’s narrative is engaging and informative. His analysis of the principal paintings is insightful and frequently provocative. Helpful maps situate the main events of the painter’s life and travels. Color plates give us the most important works. Not only does one gain a better understanding of late-16th-Century Italy, its social customs, and artistic developments, but one receives an especially enjoyable introduction to the life and work of this troubled, galant’huomo.


I did catch a few minor errors.


On page 66 one reads, “More than half a century had passed since the Lutheran troops of Emperor Charles V sacked the city [of Rome] in 1527.” Contrary to this assertion, only some of the 15,000 German soldiers who took part in that event would have had Lutheran sympathies, such as the drunken soldiers who shouted one night on the streets of Rome that they would now make Luther the pope. Most German mercenaries in the Imperial army at that time were not necessarily sympathetic to Luther’s reforms. They served under Georg von Frundsberg, a Habsburg loyalist, who remained loyal to Charles V over against the Lutheran heretics (despite Frundsberg kind words to Luther at Worms in 1521). A good portion of the sacking of Rome was done by some 5,000 (Roman Catholic) unpaid (and thus rebellious) troops of Charles de Bourbon, ex-Connetable of France and an ally of Charles V, and by several thousand Spanish mercenaries who were also unruly (and for the same reason). Lutherans are not to blame for the sack of Rome that year.


On page 89, where Graham-Dixon is correctly relating Caravaggio’s Boy with a Basket to the Old Testament book, Song of Songs, he notes that “By [this time]…in the late sixteenth century, Christian Church fathers had spent considerably more than a millennium teasing out what they had come to see as the redemptive symbolism of the poem’s tale of love.” So far, so good. But then Graham-Dixon mistakenly continues, “The Groom’s passion for the Bride was held to express Jesus Christ’s boundless love for his holy mother, Mary. The metaphor of the Bride as an ‘inclosed garden’ was easily transformed into a symbol of Mary’s virginity.” Actually, the dominant reading of the Song of Songs from the second century through the sixteenth (and later) was that the Bridegroom is Christ and the Bride is the Church. The Church has taken the place of Israel as bride (in ancient allegorical interpretations of this book by Jewish scholars the Bride was Israel and the Groom was the Lord). Following Hippolytus (2d c.), Origen (3rd c.) provided this traditional medieval allegorical interpretation of Christ and the Church (later, Christ and the individual soul). Only in the twelfth century did a few western Christian interpreters (and only one eastern Christian interpreter) suggest that the Bride should be allegorically understood as referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This minority interpretation of the Song of Songs, which lasted only into the early sixteenth century, set forth the innovative view that Mary is the real meaning of the Bride of Christ. Already in the sixteenth century, however, this Marian interpretation was on the way out and by the seventeenth century had come to be largely criticized in Roman Catholic circles. Of course in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant circles, such allegorical interpretation had always been suspect. (Interestingly, Luther seems not to have ever rejected out of hand the traditional allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs: that is, the Bride is the Church and the Groom is Christ.)


Finally, I think Graham-Dixon totally misses Caravaggio’s allusion to the serpent of Genesis 3 in the serpentine ropes on the margins of Caravaggio’s greatest work, the Beheading of John the Baptist. Those can’t be mere ropes! The one “rope” that slithers from beneath John’s leg (and from under the sacrificed animal) surely is a reference to the great symbol of evil that one encounters in the first book of the Bible. Could it be that the light that falls on John’s foot is an allusion to Romans 10:15?


These are minor points. I very much enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to those interested in a down-to-earth approach to Christian themes from one of the great, troubled Christian artists of all time.


For a further, very enjoyable experience, I encourage you to visit the main website devoted to Caravaggio’s work:

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