Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul”

By Paul

A couple of things have surfaced recently to make me think of one of my favorite painters of all time, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  

Caravaggio, as he is simply known to most of us today, merely by the name of the town in which he was born around 1571, was an artistic genius of almost unbounded proportions, a great lover of life in all its varied permutations, and a murderer.  We know for sure that he did wind up killing someone, although the reasons and circumstances surrounding the act remain somewhat unclear.  He lived in Rome, and in a number of other Italian cities, depending on where he got commissions, or on whom he was hiding from at any given moment.  Some biographers minimize or completely shy away from the fact that he was also a lover of boys (and women too probably), but I see no reason why they would do that.  It fits perfectly into his character, which was one of thumbing his nose at many societal constraints, while at the same time being smart enough to use the social construct of the age to his best advantage.  He received a number of his commissions directly from the Catholic Church, and many of his most famous paintings remain in churches today.  

The two things that have recently brought Caravaggio and his life to mind are, first of all, a review that I read not long ago entitled “Empathy,” by William Kaiser, of a new biography of the painter, published in the Oct. 25, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The biography itself is called “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane,” by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Norton, 514 pp).  The other thing that makes me think of this great Renaissance rascal of a painter is the piece that my friend and fellow blogger, Kevin, posted on the blog site recently. 

If I were to attempt to summarize in a few words Kevin’s posting on why artists create art, I think I would say this: it is because they have to.  Caravaggio even went on painting while on the run from the authorities, who were in hot pursuit for the charge of murder that hung over his head.  He went from city to city in Italy, and even to Malta, all the while keeping one step ahead of the law, stopping long enough to create things of astonishing beauty and to earn a few florins to keep body and soul together, until he inally died of a fever, alone and friendless, in the town of Porto Ercole, just south of Florence, in 1610. 

It is also true that, during his lifetime, Caravaggio did receive a good deal of praise and recognition from his contemporaries.  His friend, Marzio Milesi, even went so far as to write in his epitaph, “in painting not equal to a painter, but to Nature itself.”  I would quibble with this to the extent that, in my view, Caravaggio never tried to equal nature (or Nature), but instead to infuse his own view of life (or Life) into his paintings.  In the end, therefore, the paintings wound up being something more like “Nature Plus,” in the same way that a painting is never the equal (being both better and not better) than a photograph, or even more so, than the actual, physical scene being portrayed.      

But what if no one recognizes your paintings as somehow worthwhile?  What if the world finds you, not objectionable, but unnoticeable?  Would Caravaggio have continued to paint, for example, if the Church, or other wealthy benefactors, had not given him both recognition and the money that flowed from it?  No one can really answer that question, I suppose, but my guess is that he would have found a way to do so.  Of course, things were very different in the late 16th and early 17th centuries when he was painting, and it might have been extremely difficult for someone like Caravaggio to be able even to buy paints and other materials, let alone to afford room and board, unless he sold his paintings.  Today, many artists earn their keep either by teaching art (although as Kevin says, rightly I think, “teaching is not painting”), or by doing something else entirely.  

A case might well be made for the fact that the Renaissance provided great opportunities for artists of all stripes to pursue their art, while the modern world does not.  In doing so, of course, they had to follow the requirements of the time and, for the most part at any rate, depict so-called religious material.  Occasionally, they could get away with doing a painting of a Greek or Roman god, but such depictions were minor in number compared to the Biblical scenes which were the norm.  Great artists, like Caravaggio, however, were able to rise above such limitations and succeeded in somehow showing us more than the painting itself depicted.  Take, for example, a painting called “the Conversion of St. Paul.”  It seems to me that the horse, not Paul, is at the center of this painting.  That is the first thing our eyes light on, not the prone and blinded figure of the Apostle to the Gentiles.  My personal reading of this is that Caravaggio is telling us that the world is paramount for most of us most of the time.  It is also enormously powerful and beautiful beyond measure.  The light shinning on the stead’s side and his haunches is its own kind of miracle, and the power and grace of the animal is almost beyond measure.  Yet we humans do all we can to control those natural forces (the horse is bridled and held in place by a groom).  And it also happens that we are occasionally dumbstruck, thrown, as it were, blinded by something that is beyond our control and our understanding, by something utterly sublime.  

I believe that it is this combination of the love of all that the natural world is and represents for us, this attempt at depiction (vain, always vain, but nonetheless tried over and over again), along with the blinding Light of Vision that hurls us to the ground and makes us throw our hands up in awe, that is the nexus of what makes for great art.

Such power cannot be contained.  It is for these reasons, as Kevin says, that art – and I would add authentic creation of any kind – in the end supersedes all need even for recognition.  It bursts forth entirely of its own, it erupts, it nails us to the wall, and if we don’t do something about it, it crushes us with the enormity of its force and power.  That “doing something about it” is what I call art.  For artists, for all of us who feel the call for creation, it’s not just a requirement in the same sense as food or even sex, but it is instead something akin to air.  Breathe in and you live, stop breathing and for the most part you die.  

In the end, for the artist in each of us, all that can be said is: create!  We must create, or get out of the way, and let the flame burn where and what it may.

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