Posts Tagged ‘art’

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know is the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take this person too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no other emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so, no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

The ecstasies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Rome can sometimes seem – to the tourist, at least – as a vast museum and art gallery. Look over there – there’s a Raphael. And a few Caravaggios over here. There goes Michelangelo. And if you blink, you’ll miss that church designed by Bramante. Even on the way to the hotel, in the Piazza Barberini, on a traffic island, with all the cars and buses driving indifferently past it, there was a fabulous fountain sculpted by Bernini – a Triton, his head flamboyantly thrown back as he blows into his conch shell.

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“Triton” by Bernini at Piazza Barberini, Rome

I spent a few days in Rome recently. And yes, I took in as much as I could of the Bramantes and the Borrominis, the Michelangelos and the Raphaels, and the various Caravaggios that are dotted around the city. And yes, they are all every bit as wonderful as I had expected them to be. Even with the vast sea of people teeming inside the Sistine Chapel, I was enthralled: it was magnificent. Some complain about all those people ruining their view, but, as one of those people myself, no doubt ruining someone else’s view, I didn’t feel in a position to make such a complaint: I was grateful simply to be there.

I had expected Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio to make a big impression: and they did – no doubt about that. Less expected, perhaps, was the impression made by Bernini, who seems omnipresent in Rome. From that very first glimpse of the Triton on the way to the hotel, his works impressed themselves upon my imagination. As he had no doubt intended: all that Baroque flamboyance – some may say “exhibitionism” – is designed, after all, to impress. There may or may not be depth in these works, but it hardly matters when one is so blown away by the surface brilliance.

There is a tremendous sensuality to these sculptures, and it is difficult not to respond to it. In a small, unassuming church near my hotel, is the very famous sculpture of “St Teresa in Ecstasy”. The ecstasy is presumably religious in nature, but, in St Teresa’s own description of her vision, in which an angel stabs an arrow repeatedly into her heart, the sexual imagery can hardly be missed:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(This excerpt is taken from an article in Wikipedia, and the translator is not identified.)

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“St Teresa in Ecstasy” by Bernini, courtesy of Santa Maria delle Vittoria, Rome

And the sexual ecstasy seems to me very obvious also in Bernini’s interpretation – the eyes closed, the head thrown back, the disordered creases of St Teresa’s gown more than suggesting a wild and uncontrolled sexual delirium. I do not know what those of a more religious temperament than mine would make of this blurring of the religious and the sexual: I wouldn’t be surprised if some were to find it disturbing.

What I find more disturbing is the sensuality of two sculptures in the Galleria Borghese, both based on episodes from classical mythology. The first concerns Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne. In this story, the god Apollo takes rather a fancy to Daphne, and, as gods do, attempts to rape her. And, to save her from this fate, she is metamorphosed into a laurel tree. Thus, Apollo is thwarted, but at a not inconsiderable cost, one imagines, to his intended victim. In Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates this story, as he does all others, without taking a moral stance on the matter, and Bernini does the same. And he goes further: he renders the scene as a moment of great beauty, and of wonder. And I can’t help asking myself whether either is appropriate in a depiction of what is, after all, a scene of attempted rape.

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“Daphne and Apollo” by Bernini, Courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

Even more disturbing is his sculpture of the Rape of Prosperine. This time, it’s the god Pluto who takes a fancy to Prosperine, and this time, the rape is successful. Bernini depicts the violence of the act, with Prosperine desperately trying to push away the divine rapist. But there’s also a sensuality about the painting that I can’t help but find disturbing. It could be claimed that Bernini was doing no more than depicting: Prosperine is undoubtedly beautiful, and, indeed, desirable, so why should Bernini not depict her as such? It is hard, indeed, not to respond to her beauty and her desirability. The detail of Pluto’s fingers pressing into the soft flesh of Prosperine’s thigh seems little short of miraculous: never has marble seemed more like a living being of flesh and blood. In art, one tends often to take the artist’s technique for granted, and to focus on the artistic end to which the technique is deployed; but Bernini is asking us here to admire the technique for its own sake, and it is well nigh impossible not to do so. But when I consider the ends to which this technique is deployed, I can’t help but feel somewhat disturbed: can it be morally acceptable to depict such grotesque violation of a human being with such loving sensuality? I do not know. But it just feels wrong.

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Detail from “The Rape of Prosperine” by Bernini, courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

On my last day in Rome, I went to the Trastavere, on the west side of the Tiber, south of the Vatican. There were those wonderful frescoes by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina, and, further south, a delightful complex of piazzas, restaurants, and churches: even at the height of the tourist season, there was about the place a sense of stillness and quiet. My aim was the church of San Francesco a Ripa, which contained, so my guide book informed me, a late Bernini, created when he was in his seventies – a funerary sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Although not far – certainly within walking distance – from the crowded centre of Rome, the church was deserted: I was the only one there. The atmosphere was still and solemn, and, one might reasonably expect, a funerary sculpture, created when the sculptor was himself in his old age, and, no doubt, contemplating the stillness and the silence of eternity, would share something of the sombre and pensive qualities of the surroundings. What I saw was rather different.

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“Beata Ludovico Albertoni” by Bernini, cortesy San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Once again, Bernini seems to see no division between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy. While this may well have been justified in the case of St Teresa, there seems little justification of it here: it is almost as if Bernini is incapable of seeing anything, no matter how profane or sacred, in anything other than purely sensual terms. The Blessed Ludovica, like St Teresa, has her head thrown back; her right hand is pressed close to her soft breast, while her left hand clutches frantically at her midriff; her thigh is at an angle to her torso, her knees bent, her entire body electrified in an orgasmic moment of sheer sensual ecstasy. I, certainly, have never seen a funerary sculpture anything like this.

What do those of a more religious temperament than mine make of this, I wonder? Are they as disturbed by this as I am by the Rape of Prosperine? Are some, perhaps, shocked? And if so, did Bernini intend to shock? Perhaps not. I know little of Bernini the man, but, observing his works, I get the impression of someone who saw everything – the sacred and the profane, this world, the other world, all that is, and all that could be – in the most unashamedly sensual and erotic of terms. And even in old age, when the heyday in the blood is tame, humble, and waits on judgement, Bernini’s throbbed as voluptuously as it ever had done. And if this disturbs puritans such as myself, well, perhaps we deserve sometimes to be disturbed.

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

 

I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.