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The Renaissance brought forth an explosion of new art and artists. Names such as Michelangelo, Donatello, and Bernini were commonly known throughout the time for their innovations and inspirations, but it was an artist named Caravaggio who truly stood out. Inspired by the dark events in his life, Caravaggio went directly against the decade-old established ideals of the Renaissance and veered art into a new direction of realism to single-handedly pioneer the Baroque style.
The unfortunate life that Caravaggio lived started in violent times. His birth came just a week before the Battle of Lepanto, a bloody conflict in which Turkish invaders were driven out of Christendom. When Caravaggio was just six, the bubonic plague steam-rolled into his life, killing almost everyone in his family, including his father. Many, such as biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon, said that the artist’s troubled adult years seemed to stem from the traumatic loss of his family. The tragic childhood was just the start of a cycle of being homeless, a prisoner in jail, or a fugitive fleeing from his crimes from city to city. Caravaggio’s tumultuous life was also a blessing, however, as it bestowed on him a unique perspective. While previous Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo believed that art should elevate its subject and portray idealized fiction, Caravaggio “knew no master other than the model” and saw painting as an extension of the everyday experience , which compelled him to create such paintings as a mundane basket of fruit. Because of his deeply contrasting philosophy grounded in his familiarity with the dark sides of life, his resulting paintings were therefore also deeply contrasting (and shocking) compared to previous works.
In the set of the scenes of St. Matthew (comprised of “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”, “The Calling of St. Matthew”, and “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”), Caravaggio matured his style. The vibrant and cheerful colors are replaced as he chose to depict St. Matthew in a more realistic way instead of focusing on creating a descriptive naturalism. The way that Caravaggio pushed the picture plane and manipulated the sources of light from the single window gave the painting three-dimensionality and added drama that was unparalleled by previous masters. His techniques thus allowed him to create a general feeling of darkness, but with detail.
Many of Caravaggio’s following religious works had a similar theme, but with more shocking elements. In such paintings like “Death of the Virgin,” the central religious figures are depicted in controversial ways. In the aforementioned painting, the Virgin Mary was shown with a swollen belly and bared legs, which were both deemed inflaming and highly disrespectful by the Church. It was even speculated that Caravaggio used a dead prostitute as a model for Virgin Mary. Similarly, in “Madonna of Loreto,” the apparition of the Virgin appears barefoot with a naked child and two peasants in front of a deteriorating house. The uproar following the unveiling of this painting was inevitable. The Virgin Mary that Caravaggio drew looked like and could have been any other woman from the lower class. Jesus received the same treatment in the “Resurrection” as he stumbles bedraggled from his tomb. Most of Caravaggio’s biblical scenes were populated with prostitutes, beggars, and thieves, who were no doubt inspired by those Caravaggio encountered on the streets of Rome.
The influence of Caravaggio’s dark life can also be seen in “David with the Head of Goliath.” Though many previous adaptations of David depicted him as playful or strong, Caravaggio’s interpretation seems forlorn and disappointed as he stares at the decapitated head of Goliath, who is modeled off of the painter himself. David takes on the pose of traditional depictions of Justice, with the sword in the right hand, but a head instead of the scales in the left. These elements may signify the disgust that Caravaggio had with the giant that he had become, as he had been accused for murder and had to flee from Rome. The burden of his sins had taken their toll and Caravaggio felt that he knew that he was damned, much like the dead giant in the painting.
Though Caravaggio died at the young age of 38 and had only an ephemeral career, his impacts were surprisingly profound. His influence can be seen in the works of many later artists, from the drama in Peter Paul Rubens’ paintings to the seriousness of Vermeer’s. Throughout Europe, the Renaissance idealism was fading and Caravaggio was leading the charge for a new phase of art.
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