The religious art of the Renaissance portrayed Jesus’ divinity above all else, in dream like states. The physical and the spiritual almost become one in the same. As if Pagan Gods existing in a perfected World separate from our own. The perfectly chiseled bodies of Biblical patriarchs cover the Sistine Chapel, with Jesus on the far wall judging souls and displaying his power. Similarly, ‘The Last Judgement’ by Rogier van der Weyden shows Christ illuminated by surrounding fire, floating on a rainbow above every other figure. Jesus and the saints were idealised in the art of the middle ages, through the Renaissance, right up until the turn of the 17th Century.
Born in 1571, half a century after Luther sparked the reformation, Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – through his art, contributed greatly to the new Roman Catholic desire to counter the Protestants, and reaffirm the importance of religious imagery in connecting the founding years of Christianity, with modern day Catholicism. A few years prior to the artist’s birth, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent’s final session and set its new rules on religious imagery:
“Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honour of the saints by luxury and wantonness.”
– One might suggest that this marks a point in time in which the Church began its long history of obsession with sexual repression. But it also marks the break from the art of the renaissance depicting idealised saints far removed from the lives of ordinary people, and gave Caravaggio’s more naturalistic and human style access to the wealthiest patrons, through the Catholic Church. Cardinal Del Monte being a key player in the promotion of the young artist when he arrived in Rome. To this end, Caravaggio worked to emphasise the humanity and naturalism and humble nature of Jesus and the saints. The material Jesus and the Saints, as ordinary human beings. Divinity was not a theme he cared too much for. To attempt to provide links from the past to the present, Caravaggio would place Jesus or the Saints often in early 17th Century Rome, in naturalistic settings completely removed from anything previously imagined. No idealised hills and valleys would be included. For example ‘The Calling of St Matthew’ sees Matthew dressed in late 16th Century Roman clothing, in a 16th Century dingey Roman house, with dirty windows, whilst Jesus appears in 1st Century attire, bear foot, so as to emphasise his humbleness. And whilst this seems to be in keeping with the Church’s new strict rules on religious art, it seems they weren’t entirely ready for what they had unleashed.
In 1602 Caravaggio was tasked with producing an altarpiece for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. The French Church sits close to the Piazza Navona, housed Martin Luther during his trial in Rome, and already contained two Caravaggio works either side of the altar, depicting St Matthew’s calling (an obvious homage to French King Henri IV and his conversion to Catholicism in the 1590s), and St Matthew’s martyrdom. The newly commissioned piece was entitled ‘St Matthew and the Angel’. The painting itself was destroyed in Berlin during World War II, but this is a photo of it:
– This is a work of profound genius. St Matthew is portrayed as a humble human being, wrinkled and old, a poor Roman of Caravaggio’s day, completely dazed and shocked by the divine guidance being offered to him by an angel, whilst bathed in light. As with all Caravaggio works, God is represented by a stream of light in a darkened surrounding. The Conversion of St Paul similarly shows this style, with Paul’s outstretched arms soaking in the light. A World away from the bearded God flying through the air in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Caravaggio’s lowly ‘St Matthew’ is intended to connect the saints, to the common man. As if to say “they’re just like you”. He is unable to comprehend the gravity of the mission in front of him. Matthew’s hand is directed to write the very first words of the very first account of the life of Jesus – the Gospel of Matthew was at this time believed to be the first – almost as if he is in such a state of profound shock, he cannot write without the guiding hand of the angel. He is depicted as just a man, unable to comprehend the message without direct and concentrated help. The angel is concentrating intently on the hand of the illiterate Saint, producing the presumed first account of the life of Jesus, and you can almost imagine the words being written slowly, guided throughout by the patient teaching angel. The saint’s clothes are all over the place, exposing his legs and his dirty feet that point directly out to the viewer. Caravaggio has painted Matthew as real as humanly possible. And for that reason, the Church censored the painting and scandal ensued. According to Caravaggio’s early biographer, Giovanni Bellori:
“Then something happened which greatly disturbed Caravaggio and almost made him despair of his reputation. After the
central picture of St. Matthew had been finished and placed on the altar, it was taken away by the priests, who said that the figure with his legs crossed and his feet crudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.”
Art historian E.H. Gombrich elaborates on this episode in Caravaggio’s life:
“Caravaggio, who was a very imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer’s hand as a teacher may do to a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chance. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio had tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been.”
– Bellori conveys to us the despair that Caravaggio felt at being censored, whilst Gombrich informs us of the scandal that ensued from such a break from traditional depictions of saints and from that which the Church deemed acceptable. It is the epitome of expression through artistic endeavour meeting dominant resistant power structures.
Despite the strict new rules on religious imagery set by the Council of Trent, the Church was unable to let go of what they previously believed the ‘appearance of a saint’ should be; a belief that must not be contradicted on threat of censorship and scandal. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi still believed that depictions of the saints should retain an element of the divine about them; something that differentiated them from ordinary people, a sort of inability to let go of the idealised Catholic art of the past. Any deviation, any attempt to suggest a link between the common folk, and the saints was still not completely acceptable, and so Caravaggio’s attempt at a truthful portrayal of the apostle could not penetrate Church propaganda and ideals, and so was censored. It ended up in a private collection far away from the public gaze. Millions of people denied the right to see this work, purely because the Church deemed it to be offensive to their tastes.
Caravaggio painted a second dumbed down version, seen at the top of this article. Whilst still seeped in realism, and a wonderful painting, it loses a lot of the merits of the first painting. In it, a perfectly literate St Matthew in flowing rich red robes, an air of ‘respectability’ looks like a philosopher from antiquity. Holding the pen himself, Matthew lacks the look of shock that he had in the first painting, almost as if he’s perfectly prepared for this. The angel may as well not be there. The angel – counting on his hand – dictates arguments rather than the Gospel word for word. The saint writes unaided, his feet pointing away so as to not cause any offence, and most telling of all, the newly depicted St Matthew has a halo. He is now balancing between a regular human being, and divine. He is no longer connected to ordinary people. This version of St Matthew, with all its confusions, is entirely mirrored in a Catholic counter-reformation still unsure of itself.
I am often inclined to wonder if Caravaggio’s dangerous life might have turned out differently, had his creative flair been fully liberated from the clutch of a Church that presumed it had a right to prohibit what it considered to be ‘offensive’ to its wholly illegitimate grip on power. Challenging power structures on any level, is absolutely vital. Caravaggio was – to a degree – constrained by ideology. Modern day attempts to prohibit expression based on what a religious group consider ‘offensive’ are no different. The rationale they employ is one that attempts to tell the rest of us that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce what they deem to be ‘offensive’ expressions, and by attempting to outlaw ‘offensive’ material, it further seeks to forbid our right – as grown adults – to view material that adherents to that one religion might consider ‘offensive’. We are denied a right to see or hear dissenting views, as much as we are denied a right to create dissenting views. This is abhorrent to me. It is constraining human thoughts, and naturally creative instincts, for the perpetuation of one ideology. It is this censorship inherent to authoritarian religions that contributed greatly to their spread and grip on power and the one reason that liberation of ideas, of art, or expression in all its forms is the very basis of a decent, free and progressive society.