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  • Russ Ramsey

Introducing Caravaggio

For today’s Art Wednesday, we’ll look at the complex life and transcendent art of Caravaggio. The chapter I wrote about him in Rembrandt is in the Wind is one of my favorites.


Caravaggio, Calling of St. Matthew, 1602


My chapter about Caravaggio is called “The Sacred and the Profane: Caravaggio and the Paradox of Corruption and Grace.” In it, we take a look at what happens when someone who seems utterly corrupt transcendently displays the beauty of Gospel truth. What is that about? How is it possible? That’s the focus of the chapter.


Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, 1602


Caravaggio is my favorite Baroque painters because his life was a contradiction. I relate to him in this way. He was able to capture theological depth in his Biblical paintings, but he harbored darkness deep inside that rose to the surface in bouts of He was a brawler who killed at least two people.


In 1596, at the age of twenty-five, he painted The Card Sharps, which depicts two hustlers ripping off a rube. Word of the painting spread around town and people came from all over to see it. One of the things that made the painting so popular was that it featured humor, an uncommon element in most art of that era. The young card sharp in the foreground, no older than his naïve opponent, has extra cards tucked into his belt, which we can see. The visible handle of his dagger telegraphs that he is ready to deal with whatever disputes may arise. The older hustler in the background, the mentor, signals to his protégé what cards their dupe is holding. The fingertips of his gloves are worn away—a trick seasoned swindlers used to be able to feel for the cards they marked in their decks. The target has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. That’s the joke.


But the painting was more than a joke. It was a commentary on life on the streets of Rome; as one young man’s innocence is exploited, another’s is being corrupted as he learns the ways of the cheat. Both boys are losing something here. Caravaggio was drawn to scenes like this because these were the kind of people he lived among. He lived in violent times and Rome was a violent place populated largely by unmarried, out-of-work soldiers, and the gambling halls and brothels that serviced them.


Caravaggio was not merely fascinated by the seedy underbelly of Rome. He was part of it. Over the course of his life he got into many fights, which included several brushes with the law and stretches in jail. In fact, much of what we know about him apart from his art comes from court documents—of which there are many. He is a man known not only by his art but also by his criminal record.


Caravaggio, The Card Sharps, 1594


In David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio put his own face on the severed head of Goliath. The inscription on David’s sword says H-AS OS, an abbreviation of humilitas occidit superbiam, “Humility kills pride.”


Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1610


The Incredulity of St. Thomas is the reason I study Caravaggio. I saw it when I was young and was drawn to it. I liked it. Never forget, standing in front of a work of art and saying “I like this one” is a very valid form of art criticism. This painting hangs on the wall of our sanctuary in the place where people go for prayer during communion. Notice how this painting leads your eye with concentric circles of information emanating from a focal point. A finger in a wound. Then hands. Then the faces of Jesus, Thomas, and the others forming a cross.


Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, 1602


Our sanctuary walls are decorated like an art museum, complete with informational plaques beside each of the 20+ paintings we’ve hung. Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus hangs on the back wall. I love how this painting gives the moment of Saul’s conversion a claustrophobic vibe, as though the world were falling in on the young persecutor. It helps us relates to his sudden blindness, while also depicting how the Lord knocked him off of the life and mission he’d been riding.


Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1601


We conclude this Art Wednesday about Caravaggio with his painting of John the Baptist. It’s a fascinating take, focusing not on John’s public ministry, the more common approach, but more on his inner life. The one who paves the way for Christ sits deep in thought, contemplating what? His mission? How grace leads to repentance? How he has come to announce the dawning of a new era?


Caravaggio, John the Baptist, 1605






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