Gombrich Explains the beauty in Caravaggio

The artist was born today, 29 Sept, 1571. Learn how he broke the rules to create his brutally honest paintings
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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-1602) by Caravaggio
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-1602) by Caravaggio

We might think of the contemporary art world, with its outrageous works, high-minded critics, bold patrons and deeply devoted gallery goers as the acme of cultural engagement. Yet, as the brilliant art historian EH Gombrich explained in his definitive art history, The Story of Art, there’s always an earlier precedence.

In chapter 19 of his best-selling history, Gombrich takes us back to 17th century Rome, where “there were cultured gentlemen who enjoyed discussions on the various ‘movements’ among the artists of their time, and to take sides in their quarrels and intrigues.”

Many were concerned that the art of their era had become staid – stuck in a heavily prescribed style of painting, known as Mannerism. Fortunately, there were two artists who appeared to offer a way out of this stylistic rut, though each used methods that seemed mutually opposed. 

 

Young Sick Bacchus (c. 1593) by Caravaggio
Young Sick Bacchus (c. 1593) by Caravaggio

One was Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) from Bolonga; the other was Michelangelo da Caravaggio, who was born on this day, 29 September, in 1571 in a small town near Milan. 

Carracci admired Raphael, and cultivated a classical beauty that predated Mannerism. Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to revel in ugliness. “To be afraid of ugliness seemed to Caravaggio a contemptible weakness,” Gombrich explains. “What he wanted was truth. Truth as he saw it. He had no liking for classical models, nor any respect for ‘ideal beauty’. He wanted to do away with convention and to think about art afresh.”

This did not please Carracci’s followers, who thought he was mainly out to shock the public and that he had no respect for any kind of beauty or tradition. His critics were perhaps the first to use the term ‘naturalist’ to demean an overly earthy painter. 

Yet Gombrich directs our attention to The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, painted 1600-1602. The image depicts the New Testament scene, wherein Doubting Thomas discovers the truth about Christ’s resurrection. 

“The picture of three apostles staring at Jesus, one of them poking his finger into the wound in his side, looks unconventional enough,” Gombrich writes. “One can imagine that such a painting struck devout people as being irreverent and even outrageous. They were accustomed to seeing the apostles as dignified figures draped in beautiful folds – here they looked like common labourers.”

Yet the ugliness and ordinariness that Caravaggio paints in his scene enabled open-minded art lovers to see afresh the kind of Bible story that many would have heard thousands of times.

 

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1607) by Caravaggio
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (c. 1607) by Caravaggio

This was Caravaggio’s intention. “He was one of the great artists who wanted to see the holy events before his own eyes as if they had been happening in his neighbour’s house,” Gombrich writes.

And it wasn’t just the gore and drudgery that made Caravaggio’s paintings look more realistic than his contemporary’s works. “Even his way of handling light and shade helps to that end,” explains Gombrich. “His light does not make the body look graceful and soft: it is harsh and almost glaring in contrast to the deep shadows. But it makes the whole scene stand out with an uncompromising honesty that few of his contemporaries could appreciate but which had a decisive effect on later artists.”

These include the likes of Rembrandt, who adopted some of Caravaggio’s light techniques, as well as much later artists, such as the 19th century realist Gustave Courbet, who painted genuine common labourers with an equal degree of relish.

For more on Caravaggio’s life and work consider these books; for greater insight into his place within art history, buy a copy of The Story of Art here.


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