Drama King: Caravaggio, National Gallery

Glowering across the canvas, swathed in folds of crimson material, Caravaggio’s astonishing painting of St John the Baptist is one of the crowning glories of the National Gallery’s latest blockbuster. A character that Caravaggio returned to  a tremendous eight times during his career, this version is the crowning glory of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Glaring out from the shadows, this painting was originally commissioned for Ottavio Costa, the greedy collector that already boasted Caravaggio’s astonishing ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes and Martha’ and ‘Mary Magdalene’ in his possession. Costa loved this account of St John the Baptist so much that the painting was curiously diverted from the church it was supposed to hang in and found its way into his personal collection. With no halo or other traditional sign posts that usually accompany John the Baptist, Caravaggio radically depicts this religious figure as a moody adolescent that you could have easily bumped into on any street corner in Renaissance Rome. And this technique of placing spiritual subjects into the everyday is just one of the reasons that Caravaggio has become a household name.

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The National Gallery’s journey into the dark, brooding world of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio this autumn triumphantly brings this artist of intense light and shadow and dramatic storytelling back into the limelight. Or did he really ever leave? While Caravaggio fell out of favour until the early 20th century, this exhibition is grounded in the argument that Caravaggio influenced every artistic Tom, Dick or Harry from the tip of southern Italy to The Netherlands.

It’s a bold claim that will frustrate a lot of viewers who are expecting to find a host of Caravaggios to enjoy – but allow yourself to be won over by breathtaking works by Antonio Galli, Artemisia Gentileschi and more. Gentileschi’s heart-stopping portrayal of Susanna and the Elders is, in particular, worth spending time with. The young daughter of Caravaggio’s close friend Orazio, Gentileschi would go on to become one of the most famous female artists of the day following the horrendously violent rape she endured by her father’s pupil Agostino Tassi. Happily Gentileschi had the last laugh, taking on momentous commissions and even being sponsored by Charles I of England (prior to his head being chopped off by disgruntled Round Heads).

In fact, there are only a handful of paintings by Caravaggio on display in this exhibition while the majority of the show is taken over up his remarkable disciples, friends and acquaintances that heard whisper of the rumoured murderer from Rome.

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Of course that’s one of the reasons why Caravaggio has become such household name. In 1606 Caravaggio went on the run to Naples after his rival Ranuccio Tomassoni was brutally murdered. Well known for his violent escapades and bar fights with other artists jostling for top position in the glittering Rome of the Counter-Reformation, art historians have argued what Caravaggio and Tomassoni disagreed over, whether it was a tennis match or even a prostitute. Whatever it was that drove him south, Caravaggio bounced between Naples, Sicily and Malta before plotting his eager return to Rome in 1610. Armed with a handful of letters begging for the pardon of the Pope, Caravaggio sailed north when the artist was mysteriously killed. Like his art, Caravaggio’s life was full of light and shade and filled with drama.

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A particular highpoint is Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’ from the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. This tumultuous canvas seethes with violence and chaos as soldiers rush forwards to seize Jesus. Caught in the moment when Judas identifies Jesus with a kiss, Caravaggio creates a tremendous sense of tension with the space left between these two characters, just before the moment of betrayal. It is alarming and intensely real, a canvas that can’t help but keep your eyes fixed.

In the bowels of the National Gallery, the assortment of Caravaggesque painters surrounding the handful of originals are breathtaking in their attempts to capture this master’s use of chiaroscuro and charged narrative. But I can’t help but agree with the criticism that was on the forefront of everyone’s minds walking around the galleries – there just aren’t enough Caravaggios. And after eight rooms of imitative fleshy figures wreathed in shadow, even Caravaggio’s charms wear a little thin.