Caravaggio Made Darkness Visible

When the water-logged, bloated corpse of the drowned Maddalena Antognetti, a sex worker who used the name “Lena,” was dredged from Rome’s Tiber river in the summer of 1604, she was still beautiful. We know this because her sometimes-lover Michelangelo Merisi, who hustled under the name Caravaggio, used Lena’s dead body as a model in a masterpiece entitled “Death of the Virgin.” 

Completed around 1606 and now at the Louvre, the oil-on-canvas painting transubstantiates Lena into a red-tunicked Virgin Mary, sprawled in a cruciform position atop a gathering of sheets and pillows while an assemblage of apostles mourns around her. A composition such as “Death of the Virgin” is a representative example of Caravaggio’s brilliance when it came to the use of contrast, with the body of the dead Madonna bathed in an otherworldly light that seems to radiate from her being itself, while the periphery of the scene is a continuum of sonoluminescence veering from mild duskiness to the blackness of the void. Mary’s left hand rests on her sternum while the long, pale, and elegant fingers of her other reaches stiffly toward the viewer as rigor mortis sets in. The face of the Madonna — of Lena — is unmistakably of the deceased, for regardless of the peacefulness in her closed eyes and expressionless mouth, her brunette hair splayed out behind her, the purplish body and slack expression convey that this is obviously not a person asleep. Even more scandalously (at that time), Caravaggio presents this Mary as bare-footed, her soles smudged with dirt. The only indication of divinity in the scene is the thin crescent of a golden halo above Lena’s — Mary’s — dead face. 

A papal legate named Laerzio Cherubini had commissioned this work, wanting a picture of Mary’s death for his chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scalla. Upon viewing the painting, however, he rejected it. Not an issue of the artist’s personal morality, but rather of those dirty feet poking out beneath the death shroud. As Andrew Graham-Dixon writes in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2012), for contemporaries, there was concern that this “indecorous depiction of the Virgin might cause a stir.” He quotes the art collector Giulio Mancini as saying that “someone knowledgeable will reprove us” for displaying the painting, though knowledgeable of what, exactly, remains a question. (The model, perhaps, as she was known to solicit outside of the very church in which her visage hung.) In his concern, Mancini may have also been referencing Caravaggio’s notoriety as a drunken reprobate. Giovanni Baglione, a painter, art historian, and contemporary rival of Caravaggio’s, for instance, wrote in a biography of the painter that he was wont to look “for a chance to break his neck or jeopardize the life of another.” A man who was partial to courtesans and adolescent boys alike, charged with crimes as (relatively) middling as serenading his landlady with obscene songs (accompanied by guitar) and smearing excrement on her door, and flinging artichokes in the face of a waiter because he couldn’t answer if they were cooked in butter or olive oil, to sins as heinous as mutilating the genitals of a man he killed in a gang fight. 

If anyone is a representative case of critic Claire Dederer’s question in Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma (2023) of “what ought we do about great art made by bad men,” it’s Caravaggio. Because Caravaggio certainly wasn’t a good man — he was a hustler and criminal, an addict and murderer. Cherubini knew that; everyone in Rome knew that. But he was a painter of startling originality and brilliance as well, who could coax light from darkness in such contrast that it was as if the God of Genesis dividing the day from the night. When Cherubini looked upon Lena, he only saw a prostitute, but when Caravaggio represented her, she was the very Mother of God. 

Both aesthetically and theologically, Caravaggio is a painter of immanence: The deep contrast of his chiaroscuro suggests that sparks of divinity glow even from within the blackest confines. An artist who, to reappropriate John Milton’s phrase in Paradise Lost (1667), penned nearly six decades later, made “darkness visible.” A consummate painter of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, even if — maybe especially if — the work he produced is scandalous. Where northern-European Protestants were engaging in a Kulturkampf of iconoclastic fury, smashing statues and stained-glass windows, white-washing frescoes and mosaics, the French, Spanish, and Italian Catholics rather encouraged an orgy of maximalism as a rejoinder. Bernini, El Greco, Valázquez — all were sectarians of this new style that emphasized overabundance, but Caravaggio was perhaps the most astute, not just in skill but in philosophical vision. Referring to the Catholic doctrine that certain rituals signal the divine’s incarnation in the world, particularly during the Eucharist, when wafer and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ, Regina Mara Schwartz writes in Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (2008) that sacraments were miracles “so rarely achieved, of combining with the other: mind, soul, and body.” Appropriate, then, considering the divine violence of Caravaggio’s body of work, that sacrament and sacrifice share a Latin etymological root, both related to the word for sacred.

In Catholic countries, where the transformation of the wafer and wine was still regarded as real, an artist like Caravaggio could express that sense of holiness — of the union of mind, soul, and body — in his compositions, a vision of a “paradisal Eucharist and a transubstantiating universe,” as Schwartz writes. The result, in Caravaggio’s case, is a distinctive style, a method and a means that drew upon and depicted sacramentality as thrumming through our fallen reality, wherein nothing is as perfect as a pantheist might hope or as corrupted as a Calvinist believes, but rather where the sacred is studded in the profane like diamonds in a vein of coal. Mining for holiness in our corrupted world was a particular genius for the painter, who found faith and ecstasy in violence and sex. “Like Sophocles or Samuel Beckett or Toni Morrison,” writes Teju Cole in the New York Times, “Caravaggio is an artist who goes there with us, to the painful places of reality. And when we are there with him, we sense that he’s no mere guide. We realize that he is in fact at home in that pain, that he lives there.” 

Scripture is arguably an account of how holiness is studded throughout the pain of this world, and Caravaggio was a master artist of such biblical subjects. Examine the central figure in his “The Crowning with Thorns, painted around 1602–04 and held by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna: Christ centered in the lower half of the painting, stubbled face downcast, a striking vermillion cloak barely covering his nudity, a centurion in 16th-century armor watching as two servants lean down, having just pressed the gnarled crown onto the messiah’s forehead. There is virtually no background, merely a shaft of light emerging from the upper left permeating this scene in both lustry radiance and tenebrous darkness. These figures, who are very much from a time and place, are, under Caravaggio’s hand, suspended in an eternity of no time or place. The straining muscles on the servants, the rippling of fat above Christ’s waist as he’s forced to crouch down, the sheen on the armor of the centurion — all of it a verisimilitude engendered by contrasts of shadow and glow so vibrant that the result is almost beyond real, a veritable transrealism. As the alchemists could control the elements and necromancers the porous line between the living and the dead, so too was Caravaggio proficient in the theurgy of light and dark. 

For Caravaggio is the unassailably undisputed master of chiaroscuro. The painter’s very name has come to be all but synonymous with that characteristic contrasting of dark and light — even neophytes can easily identify Caravaggio’s work. What Caravaggio offers via that technique is a type of religiosity that transcends its subjects — a complicated, painful, and disturbing religiosity that is all the more sacred because of it. When the Council of Trent met in the years between 1545 and 1563, they defined a sacrament as a thing “subjected to the senses, which has the power not only of signifying but also of effecting grace.” By that criterion broadly deployed, Caravaggio’s art is sacramental — the work of a demon who could paint as an angel, translating sin into inspiration. As it were, it’s precisely that mixture of the demonic and the angelic, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, that made such transformations possible. 

If that Italian term regards the interdependence of light with dark, the ways in which meaning can only be comprehended by espying the two ever in contrast, then chiaroscuro can be deployed for Caravaggio in a biographical sense as well. Those rough, calloused, cuticle-split hands stained with red and black oil were also hands that grasped a rapier as it fatally slashed the femoral artery of a local gangster and pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni. The two dueled not over Lena, but another sex worker named Fillide Melandroni, a slight strawberry blonde who’d modeled for Caravaggio numerous times, most notably in his “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” made around 1599 and now held at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. In that painting, Judith’s delicate, ivory-colored hand grasps at a tangle of her victim’s matted, greasy hair while the sword bisects Holoferne’s screaming trachea in the second before a swift turn would complete the decapitation. A spray of crimson, red as the backdropped curtain, stains the bed’s sumptuous white sheets. The model for Holofernes was Caravaggio himself. 

The hand that slew Tomassoni was the same hand that finished “Death of the Virgin”and in the same year of 1606. Violence was a muse for Caravaggio, and if life was already cheap in Renaissance Italy, among the madding crowd of Rome’s underclass, in which the artist must be included, the prices were slashed even lower. An obsession with violence — particularly of the detaching-a-head-from-the-shoulders variety — permeates Caravaggio’s oeuvre. For a Christian artist, the Bible — a heinously violent book, it should be remembered — afforded ample opportunities in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to depict tortures, immolations, crucifixions, and decapitations. Holofernes, for instance, is joined by the Old Testament Isaac and the New Testament John the Baptist in Caravaggio’s obsession with losing one’s head. In his 1603 “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” held by the Uffizi, the artist captures the second in which the angel of the Lord stills the hand of Abraham as he holds a knife to the throat of his young son, the patriarch’s child looking up in horror, not yet aware of his salvation. Decapitation is also the subject of the 1610 “David with the Head of Goliath, now at the Galleria Borghese, in which the Jewish king is rendered as a barely postpubescent man bathed in light, holding the head of the slain giant by his tangled hair, his dim, dead eyes still open in dull surprise, the mouth of the Philistine warrior slack-jawed, each jagged tooth a grim yellow shovel. The model for Goliath, maybe unsurprisingly, was again Caravaggio himself. 

Not that the Hebraic need be the only source of violent imagery. The Hellenic was just as blood-soaked: Turning from Jerusalem to Athens, the painter pursued his fascination with decapitation with his arresting 1597 “Medusa,” also at the Uffizi. The gorgon’s head lays in a green circle, as if on the platter by which the Baptist’s head was presented to Salome, her eyes as shocked as were Goliath’s, her mouth open in rage, the tangle of snakes that compose her hair appearing as if they were still writhing, a cascade of blood trailing from her severed neck. Surprised as Goliath, yes, but seemingly still defiant despite her death — Caravaggio’s Medusa shares more of the feminine rage of Judith than the abject defeat of Holofernes.

There is always a risk in imparting a contemporary political sensibility onto an artist like Caravaggio, whose life is so alien to us. Yet the decision to render himself as the monster to be slayed — by biblical woman associated with determination and power, no less — can’t be incidental either. The artist certainly had precedent to draw from in scripture, Baroque aesthetics, and Catholic theology. But in the aesthetic decisions he made, we can read a desire to absolve himself of some guilt by imagining, and portraying, his own violent murder over and over. A masochist, perhaps, but a theological one, who understood that all fallen beings — including himself — are made in the image of not just the demons, but also of God. 

Frances Larson notes in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2015) that Caravaggio was “drawn to the human body in extremis,” an artist who “liked to condemn his half-headless subjects to hang forever in that excruciating moment between life and death.” Maybe it’s more all-encompassing to say that Caravaggio was obsessed with physical in extremis not just in terms of what’s excruciating, but with its antonym of ecstasy, which nonetheless mirrors the former in intensity. 

An unmistakably erotic painter — all of those beautiful courtesans modeling as biblical characters and bare-chested boys, such as his David or the puckish, naked, winged cupid in the 1602 “Amor Vincit Omnia,” held at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Telling how Larson describes the “moment between life and death,” for if Caravaggio is the renderer of that which is excruciating but also that which is ecstatic, then death and the orgasmic must by necessity be paired in that strange mystic theophany, that second losing of oneself. Such is the purview of faith, for Caravaggio’s most erotic pictures are those intimately tied not just to scriptural narrative, but to the experience of God. His 1595 “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” held at Hartford’s Wadsworth Athenaeum, depicts the monk in revelry, the supernatural literally rendered in the form of an angel who cradles the saint — albeit as a beautiful adolescent boy with wings. Far more remarkable, then, is “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy,” painted in 1606 and now held in private collection, which appears to once again use Lena as model. Here, rather than presenting his favored sex worker as the Virgin, he presents her as, well, a sex worker. Hands clasped over a white tunic and red robe, clothing not dissimilar to what she wears in “Death of the Virgin,” the still-corpuscular Lena leans back with pale shoulder exposed, hair hanging straight down, eyes closed and mouth open, a representation of ecstasy that seems less of the mystical variety and more of the unrepentantly sexual — though, of course, as the painter perhaps suggests, these are not so divergent. 

There is no angel here cradling Magdalene. Her pleasure is if not carnal, then earthly, but no less sacred because of it. St. Teresa of Avila, indeed, wrote in her autobiography of 1565 that she experienced divinity as a “thrusting… at times into my heart piercing my very entrails… it made me moan….” Pain and pleasure mixed together, along with good and evil — the chiaroscuro of the soul. The question of how we understand great art created by bad people isn’t commensurate with Caravaggio’s pained ecstasies, for part of the miracle of his entire corpus is that such work could come from a hand that murdered, so that a fallen angel is still an angel after all. What do we do with such work? We’re moved by it, seduced by it, enlightened by it, entranced by it, saved by it. Like Caravaggio himself, we must find the profane in paradise and the divine in the dross — a lesson true whether in his biography or his work. In such gardens, even dead trees can grow the sweetest of fruit.  

Caravaggio, “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” (1606), oil on canvas, held in private collection (image via Wikimedia Commons)

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