Reviewing the contents of the National Gallery in London in a single article can seem sort of like trying to paint the extent of the Grand Canyon onto a single sheet of A4. What feels like thousands of chambers, each brimming with works of extraordinary grandeur, skill, and passion, form an endless grid across the building. Take a left and delight in the astonishing dexterity of the Dutch masters. Turn right to view the delicateness of the Pointillists’ dotted forms. Stumble on to the stylistic recalcitrance and atavism of the Pre-Raphaelites. The National Gallery houses some of the seminal works in the history of visual representation; overpowering but a real treat.
It is rather ironic, therefore, that my abiding memory should be of the name behind just three of the paintings in the entire building. In a corner of one of the many antechambers devoted entirely to religious iconography, the Milanese painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (commonly known as Caravaggio) shies away from the pomp and piety of his contemporaries. Caravaggio was the supreme practitioner of a dramatic mode of art called ‘radical naturalism’, which features theatrical subjects in bursts of intense emotion and action lit by an ethereal chiaroscuro (an intense contrast between light and dark). Caravaggio spent most of his years in Rome, switching repeatedly between alliance and enmity with a resurgent Catholic Church. He died at thirty eight, a debaucherous murderer and drunkard: an end to a life that belonged in one of his paintings.
In Supper at Emmaus, three figures surround a seated Jesus Christ at a table laden with a humble evening meal. Two of them are seated, while one, perhaps an innkeeper, stands obediently at the messiah’s shoulder. Jesus is holding out his right hand; his left silences the company with a raised finger. His two seated companions are in a state of supreme agitation: one, who is turned away from us, makes to push himself out of his chair; the other holds his arms wide apart, his emaciated face is turned excitedly to the heavenly figure. They are dressed in peasant garb: you can see the elbow patches on an ill-fitting jacket. The room is plain and in deep shadow; the figures are cloaked in a strange pallor.
It is a macabre scene in Salome receives the head of John the Baptist. A muscle-bound warrior, draped in a toga, lifts the decapitated head of the Baptist by its blood-soaked hair, off an ornate gold plate. The woman holding the plate looks away in muted anguish, as the pallid countenance of her gruesome freight is revealed. An elderly figure stands abaft, the leathery skin of her face that shows under a dirty headscarf is bowed, in a carriage of sad observation.
Boy bitten by a lizard reveals the wry side to Caravaggio’s character. An effeminate figure reacts girlishly to a bite from a tiny, unthreatening reptile. His silky drapery slips, revealing a smooth shoulder that meets his chin as he pulls away. The shock of fiery red hair is set in loose curls, as it frames the androgynous features of his face. There is a white rose behind his ear. He registers anguish and confusion; he is a figure of fun.
As I stumbled confusedly from room to room, through the cavernous, overpowering National Gallery in London, it was Caravaggio’s paintings that stopped me in my tracks. This explosive, provocative artist’s work confounds, excites and amuses. His life was only a short chapter in the sweeping history of art, but his paintings show us how long and important a moment can seem.
Image of the National Gallery by Retignano