Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio, 1606
This past week, I attended a series of lectures on the life and art of Caravaggio, given by Dr. Francesco Buranelli, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. If Caravaggio’s art strikes you as hauntingly beautiful, even when you know little about his techniques and motives, imagine what delving into the intimate connection between his life, his art and his spirituality for ten hours can do to you.
Dr. Buranelli presented the works of art to us as they corresponded to the stages of Caravaggio’s life. First, the paintings of his youth, with their vivid colors, juvenile themes and delicate variations of light. Second, the works of his mature stage: marked originality in themes and perspectives, deeper contrast of light and shadows. Finally, the works he created during the years of his flight from the authorities who sought to execute him for having killed a man.
That’s right: the passionate Caravaggio most likely killed the man by accident in one of his many brawls, but the punishment was death nonetheless. His works then took on a new and somber tone: less, yet more focused light, and fewer figures and objects compared to his earlier paintings. Compare, for example, the Supper at Emmaus painted in 1601, and the work of the same name painted in 1606 shortly after he committed the crime. The second painting is more meditative; the sparse illumination and the absence of action focus your attention on what is most important in the scene: Christ, who blesses the bread in the solemn way he blessed it on the tragic night before his death.
For many of us in the audience, this” accompanying” Caravaggio during the desperate years of his flight from justice made us think of the healing effect that humiliation and the recognition of our misery can have in our own lives. Caravaggio lived it through his final paintings: his own heart was now fixed on the essential, his soul searched for light of grace and begged for mercy. Another extraordinary painting from this period is his David with the Head of Goliath, in which the head of the decapitated Philistine is Caravaggio’s own self-portrait, a piteous and vanquished foe overcome by the virtue and justice represented in David.
One wonders if his painting would have ever taken this turn had the unfortunate assassination never taken place. In the end, Brunelli told us, God did have mercy on Caravaggio: the artist died of a fever in 1610, weakened by his four year escape and ever-scant living conditions. He was just 39 years old. But he left us much to look at, and much to think about: what could an unfortunate turn in our own lives mean to us? Will the darkness that surrounds our lives also make us focus more on the light?