Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio: Break from Baroque
Baroque Art made a grand entrance into Europe in the 17th century. Baroque combines exaggeration of movement with perfect-looking humans. The style is one of grandeur and of elegance, intended to appeal to the tastes of society’s elite: the nobles, the church leaders and the bourgeoisie. Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was one of the artists to usher in the period of Baroque art in the 1600’s. Whilst Caravaggio is officially a Baroque artist, given that his art utilizes the elements of emphasis and motion (his works feature boldly portrayed characters who seem to be captured in mid-motion) his execution of, and personal addition to, the world of Baroque art separate his work from that of his contemporaries. Caravaggio’s works paid homage to the style but ultimately broke from the main Baroque style. He was a significant artist because of these three points. One, the painting’s heightened realism broke from ordinary Baroque art. Two, the realism allowed the masses to identify with the paintings more as it included them and their everyday life. Three, the close identification with the art led to creating more religious fervor as the church featured Caravaggio’s work.
Traditional Baroque art featured muscular and delicately plump bodies with a combination of motion. Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents is an example of ordinary Baroque art created in 1611(See figure 1). It depicts Romans massacring each other. Their bodies are near perfect and highly muscular as if they were Zeus himself (Stern). The bodies of the children are very fat and plump which was a popular style of that time as well. Perfected bodies are a feature of many past and ancient pieces. What really makes this artwork Baroque is in the motion that it is featuring. The piece has a story to tell and it is told by giving the action emphasis. This is shown here by the baby that is about to be thrown to the ground, and the violent commotion in the background. Baroque art was a centerpiece of the 1600’s and emphasis of people were important to it. Baroque art in its purest foundation can thus be characterized by its addition of action whilst it is happening. Other changes to the art style is entirely up to the artist. To have broken from ordinary Baroque art requires a significant addition to the painting and that is precisely what Caravaggio did.Figure 1. orthodox Baroque (Massacre).
Caravaggio utilized dark realism in his art which was a break from pure Baroque art. Death of the Virgin, a painting by Caravaggio from 1606 is a clear example of his break. Critics of Caravaggio saw the dirty feet and clothing of the Virgin Mary to be an outcry(Stern). Ordinary Baroque style would include clean people and new looking clothing. Caravaggio’s Virgin Mary however had a dirty dress over her, fingernails showing death, and the dirty feet of the commoners. This was a big break from what others were used to. Not only was the Virgin Mary dirty like the masses, but also was she visibly dead. This dark realistic style split from the style of Rubens and other famous Baroque artists. Caravaggio’s painting that skyrocketed him to fame however was The Calling of St. Matthew, which was a piece from 1600 depicting Jesus calling for Matthew to follow him (See Figure 2). This was a masterpiece because it was “rough and unadorned. their features were real, not ethereal”(Stern). This painting was one of a few others that brought about the start of the Baroque era. But even as it was bringing about a new era of art, Caravaggio was already going down a seperate road. The rough and unadorned visage of St. Matthew was a huge point in the painting. This differed from the Virgin Mary’s painting created later in that the people featured looked like they belonged to the streets( Hibbs). Realism was not only found by Caravaggio in creating characters who look more like actual people but also in that they were regular people themselves down in environments that showcased ordinary life. There can be additions to an art style, but Caravaggio’s was not just an addition, it classified another type of Baroque art unlike any other that was seen before. Figure 2. Caravaggio’s famous piece (Calling).
People like to associate with things that feature their everyday life, and Caravaggio’s art utilized that element extremely well. Baroque art would generally feature saints and other famous people (Stern). They would be drawn like they were perfect as God himself was. Muscular or sagely men in great condition, and children with plumptuous butts dominate Baroque art. The realistic style that Caravaggio used was not for just the perfection of the humans in the paintings. He didn’t apply realism to make perfection look even more real. He applied it in that his characters were ordinary looking people who looked realistic. The style also encompassed featuring the poor masses themselves. Their ordinary lives, garments, and entertainment would be shown accurately in Caravaggio’s works. One would often see his work, feature characters in a bar with dirty companions surrounding them (Caravaggio’s Deposition). Caravaggio clearly attracted people to his works. There were hundreds if not thousands of artists in Italy. But his art attracted the people. Caravaggio’s ‘dirty’ unwashed masses of the streets in an ordinary setting would associate with the people.
The significance in people associating with Caravaggio’s works is in the social mindset change. Caravaggio was not born into riches, he himself was an artist whose experiences mirrored those of the majority. It can not be said that he painted for the people, as much as it can be said that his paintings just followed the fervor of the time as he himself had it. The Italian Renaissance was nearing its end as Baroque art took flight. Art and worldly desires were now slowly edging their ways into the working class’s minds which was a departure from medieval thought. They did not need to be perfect Christians and serve God constantly to make it to heaven. This was the mindset of the populace during the middle ages and into the Renaissance as the Renaissance mainly affected the rich. The uptaking of Caravaggio’s paintings shows a change in mindset of the people. Where the people themselves can also have a say, and be a part of society as a whole. The masses can partake in society, have fun, live, and hope for a better future. This was the changing thought pattern emerging in the populace as the modern period more or less begins. The uptaking of Caravaggio’s art was through the people’s bond with it. The fame of Caravaggio’s realistic art is indicative of the upward mobility and changing lower social classes of the time period.
Critiques of Caravaggio’s style by the clergy show the split between the perfection ideals of the Renaissance and the new realism of the modern era. This split was accentuated by the familiarity the masses tended to show with Caravaggio in favoring his grim art. Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin was heavily critiqued by high church officials as being distasteful and a disgrace as it highlighted the literal death of the Virgin Mary instead of a symbolic one (Hibbs). The rigor mortis setting in and the greenish black coloring of the Virgin Mary’s skin depicted her as dead which was not what the hopeful Church officials wanted from Caravaggio. They saw it as disgusting and a farce to a sacred figure. Their critiques are accurate as that is exactly what Caravaggio set out to do. However, the opinions of the masses reflected much difference in thought. His grim style attracted a plethora of people. The difference in opinion here reflects the split of the era. The (majority of the) clergy still want perfected paintings, but Caravaggio and the masses wanted the new ‘real life’ depictions of the bible. So not only did the association the people had with Caravaggio’s paintings show the upward mobility and mindset change of the time, but it also showed the split between the ideals of past art and new ones.
Association with Caravaggio’s art would cause an upwelling of Church membership.The time period was full of religious fervor and rich art commissioners (Dirda). The art that was painted during the Renaissance taught the masses the story of the bibles through art. This would carry through to the 16th century where Caravaggio’s art would be the next line to be featured as the religious art that everyone wanted to see (Butterfield). Association of his art to the lives of the people created masses of people that would show up at churches to see his featured works. The Calling of Saint Matthew was one artwork that would immortalize Caravaggio’s place in that time. The masses of this time would generally rely on art and visuals to help them understand the teachings of the bible. In The Calling of Saint Matthew,the dark and light depictions of the peasant characters and Jesus’s presence would place Caravaggio’s mark on many people’s lives. The message could differ from person to person. But it would generally be seen that the dark area where the ordinary and ‘dirty’ individuals were represented the people and their lives. The light shone at Matthew calling him to follow in Jesus’s steps could be interpreted to be salvation or one of the ways to salvation by the people that viewed it. The fervor the people felt ultimately would be fervor for the church.
Being an artist for the Church helped Caravaggio’s reputation as being significant. Caravaggio, did not become famous or notable to the current era until the 1950’s (Buterfield). What defines an artist one would call significant today, is if people have ‘heard’ about them and what the critics of the era think of that artist. During Caravaggio’s time, it was the Italian elites who had the money to commission for artwork. This could be both rich merchants or the clergy. Working for Cardinal Francesco Del Monte is what ultimately gave Caravaggio a jump start at attaining a title of being a significant artist of the era (Stern). Creating religious works that was featured in grand churches and loved by the people was what physically made Caravaggio significant. The popularity he had created during his time in Italy through the Church led him to significance as one would refer to it as today.
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio’s significance is based in the realism that his art utilized. Its realism showed the departure from the past era into the new one through the people. The people’s pursuit of his art in the 16th century exhibited the change in the people’s outlook on life as well as the church’s old ideals for art with those of the new. Caravaggio’s fame was intertwined with that of the Church’s as his artwork was featured in them, and this allowed the publicity to recognize him as significant today else he would have been forgotten.