Caravaggio and the art of the Counter-Reformation

Chalk portrait of Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

I have always been interested in history and art. From the outset, my first love has been the art of Italy, in particular the Renaissance, but over the years I have gradually extended my areas of expertise to either side of that temporal region and, to a lesser extent, widened my scope of appreciation geographically. Whenever one contemplates a work of art, one is drawn to the conditions which existed at the time the work was created and the inevitable effects that the history of the period had on the aesthetic quality of the art.

The history of the Italian city states in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries is fascinating, rivalling the blood and thunder we choose to entertain ourselves with today, in epic series such as ‘Game of Thrones’. The family dynasties such as the Medici in Florence and the Sforza in Milan, alongside the unending succession of fascinating characters that constitutes the papacy, generate myriad fascinating individuals whose stories and actions can thrill, mystify and appall us centuries later.

I have come to realise that the studying of art and history are complementary pastimes; each enhances the knowledge and enjoyment of the other. It is my intention to write a series of articles which examine a particular artist, or art movement, within its historical context, drawing out the links between the two spheres and demonstrating that the appearance of a work of art can be best understood by appreciating the forces at play in the place and time of its creation.

I start with one of the best known and, it is fair to say, infamous artists of his age – Caravaggio. Like many, I came to his art through reading of his rumbustious temperament and outrageous behaviour and yet my understanding of the history of the time was telling me that this was a time when spirituality in art was undergoing a refocusing, following the events of the Counter-Reformation. And Caravaggio was flourishing, regarded as one of the best, if not the pre-eminent, painters in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In this article, I examine the people who influenced the development of his mature style and look at his works, both private and public, executed during his time in Rome from 1599 to 1606. I discuss the degree to which they conform to the conditions imposed by the Council of Trent and the position adopted by the various treatises on artistic style that were published thereafter and show a side to Caravaggio that I previously did not appreciate and that does not often appear in the biographies or art monographs dedicated to his remarkable oeuvre.

I hope you will find my thoughts stimulating. At the same time, this is a lengthy article and I appreciate that you may not wish to look at every part of it. In the hope that you will find at least something of value herein, I shall list the main sections to make it easier to find the topics which interest you.

I begin by looking at the development of sacred art before the Council of Trent and of the Lombard style of art, so influential to Caravaggio. Then I discuss the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, with particular emphasis on its decrees on sacred images. Next, I look at the texts and treatises which were published in the years after the Council and how artists responded to the guidance therein.

We shall meet the main players who set the spiritual scene in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century and unravel the ideas they generated which shaped artistic development for many decades to come.

I choose Caravaggio as the example par excellence of an artist who rose to meet the challenges of this new form of sacred art and we see how his style and form developed. We meet many of the patrons who commissioned both his private and public works and closely examine a number of his sacred works produced during his spell in Rome from 1599 to 1606, evaluating each work to see how closely he adheres to the criteria within which he is charged to operate.

It is my sincere hope that you will find something to interest you and that you will, as I do, marvel at the genius of the artist.

Sacred art before the Council of Trent

If we wish to understand how truly revolutionary the art of Caravaggio was in its time, it is useful to follow the development of sacred images that took place in the preceding centuries. To us, with the benefit of being cognisant of how art developed after Caravaggio, we may fail to realise how big a departure his style was from what had come before and the dislocating effect that his paintings would have had on the viewers. When we listen to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony now, we revel in its style and magnitude but perhaps fail to hear that is was utterly unlike anything that had been written before; Caravaggio’s art is the visual equivalent.

To begin with, let’s look at an example of Caravaggio’s sacred work from the period when he was establishing himself in Rome.

‘Madonna di Loreto’ (1604-1606), Cavaletti Chapel, Sant’Agostino, Rome

Among Caravaggio’s most powerful altarpieces, it merges the immediacy of traditional icons with the narrative force of Renaissance istoria painting, the past with the present and the devotional with the didactic. We shall study this painting in more detail later. But for now, it serves to illustrate the transition from sacred imagery as a Renaissance devotional aid to sacred imagery as a vehicle for displaying narrative artistry. But what preceded this new, natural style?

For centuries, sacred images played an important role in reinforcing the lessons heard during mass. The majority of the population were illiterate and those who could read rarely had access to bibles, so the conveyance of religious messages depended on the spoken word or visual image. Picture bibles, known as biblia pauperum were in circulation and public sacred images became seen as a version of these. In the Renaissance these paintings appeared on chapel walls and altarpieces in churches.

The sacred images familiar to us now grew out of Byzantine images known as icons, prevalent from the 3rd century onwards. These conveyed intimacy by proximity to the viewer and timelessness by a flat frontal placement against a gold background.

‘Madonna and Child’ (1230) Berlinghiero, Metropolitan Museum of art, New York

In the trecento*, a growing interest in naturalism led to the loosening of this formality and an introduction of illusionism and gestural movement.

Giotto ‘Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (circa1300), Louvre, Paris

[*trecento is an Italian term for the 1300s. I shall use this terminology and the equivalents (quattrocento, cinquecento, seicento) when describing centuries of art history ]

By the early quattrocento, the gold background of narrations was replaced by natural settings and scenes were populated by multiple figures in a variety of positions and views.

Fra Angelico, ‘Descent from the Cross’, (1430-1434), Museum of San Marco, Florence

By the end of the quattrocento the transformation from icon to narrative was nearly complete. Light and colour were rich but natural and clarify of line replaced by softness of form. Movement and a developed temporal sequence were in use.

Giovanni Bellini ‘The Resurrection of Christ’ (1475-1478), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The early cinquecento saw the victory of the narrative over the icon, won by the masters of the High Renaissance. One of the main developments leading to this was the development of linear perspective by Leon Battista Alberti in his seminal work Della Pittura (On Pictures).

Raphael ‘Entombment’ (1504), Gallery Borghese, Rome

At the end of the High Renaissance, the Mannerist style briefly flourished in Florence. Mannerism, or maniera, was characterised by exaggerated form and expression, artificial colouration, disjunction in space and unbalanced, crowded compositions. The style was formulated by a younger generation of artists who professionally matured after the death of Raphael in 1520 and was a conscious, clear departure from the order and rationality of the High Renaissance.

Jacopo Pontormo painted an altarpiece for the Capponi chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence which represents an interesting return to icon-style sacred painting through a Mannerist lens. Let me nail my colours to the mast here and state that this is one of my very favourite works of art. I was fortunate to see its unveiling after a restoration while studying in Florence in 2018 and the sheer beauty of its colours moved me to tears. I shall say more of this later in this article. The photograph here is one I took that day.

Jacopo Pontormo ‘Capponi altarpiece’ (1525-1528), Santa Felicita, Florence

The altarpiece has been identified as a Deposition, a Pietà and an Entombment and can be read as any, due to the deliberate ambiguity in its composition. The landscape is non-descript; there is no sign of a tomb. It is unclear in which direction the body of Christ is being carried as the bearers are static. It is as if we are in an echo of the days of the icon, being confronted with the dead body of Christ and reminded of his sacrifice.

And yet this process requires the viewer to visualise the sequence of events in their mind and is designed to make an emotional appeal to the viewer – look at the expressions on the faces of this figures in the painting.

This merging of narrative and icon seen in this and other Mannerist works has been interpreted as a response to the Protestant Reformation, one not requiring decrees or treatises but more along the lines of a personal manifesto for change.

The Lombard style

The definition of ‘Lombard’ is somewhat loose and flexible and can include artists from a variety of northern Italian regions. The term is perhaps more usefully applied to common intentions and the artistic means through which they were achieved.

The Lombard style began in the second decade of the cinquecento, drawing on the heritage of Leonardo da Vinci’s natural, affective and tangible style, which had blossomed during his Milanese years. Undoubtedly the most important figure of Lombard thought and style, Leonardo was Tuscan by birth but spent the years 1482-99 and 1508-13 in and around Milan. Such was his influence that his style and theoretical positions were still fully entrenched within the artistic sphere of Lombardy more than sixty years after his death.

Although the experiential art of Lombardy developed independently of, and prior to, the formulation of the Tridentine decree on images, from 1563 the Lombard sacred style began to be seen as a solution to the crisis of the devotional image. Leonardo’s ideas were synergised with Counter-Reformatory ideals by Giovanni Paolo Lomasso, who published his Trattato dell’arte della pittura in 1584, advocating proportionate lines, natural colours, imitati of corporeal things and movement which demonstrated “great affections and passions of the soul”. This aligned his work with the Tridentine decrees which deemed emotional incitement of the viewer a necessary precursor to spiritual transformation.

For Leonardo, shadows were integral to the impression of perspective and the rendering of three-dimensional form. ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ magnificently combines this use of sfumato and the burgeoning interest in nature seen in Lombard art at this time.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (completed 1508), National Gallery, London

The contrast in light and dark, typically where darkness dominates, would become an archetypal feature of Caravaggio’s work. These uses of shadow – sfumato or tenebrism – serve a threefold purpose:

  • Artistic – integral to empirical naturalism and the creation of three-dimensional form
  • Theoretical – restricts the artist to empirical truth
  • Theological – ensures the presentation of scriptural truth

The decree and post-Tridentine discursive treatises on sacred images ignited the desire for images that were natural, tangible and moving, qualities already inherent in the Lombard sacred style, which would prove to be instrumental in the individual sacred style reform of artists in the years after the closing of the Council of Trent.

Such artists included:

  • The Carraci in Bologna – Ludovico (1555-1619), Agostino (1537-1602), Annibale (1560-1609)
  • Federico Barocci (c1535-1612) in Urbino and Rome
  • Santi di Tito (1536-1603) in Florence
  • Antonio Campi (1522-87) in Milan

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

After 1517, with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther, which ignited the Protestant Reformation, the crisis between icon and narrative, between religion and art, came to a head, with widespread outbreaks of image destruction and desecration, known as iconoclasm. Although there had been increasing outrage towards a variety of activities of the Catholic Church, such as the sale of indulgences, Protestant Reformers especially demonised sacred images and their worship, which led to their destruction in widespread acts of vandalism. Image veneration was considered heretical and idolatrous by Calvin and derided as superstitious by Erasmus.

The Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation, led to the opening of the Council of Trent in 1545. A series of conclaves would take place over the next eighteen years, pontificating on a whole range of issues, including scripture, the sacraments, mass and the veneration of saints. The Council of Trent also directed its attention to the veneration of sacred images, defining their purpose in a 1563 decree; however, the question of images was only addressed in the hurried last weeks of the twenty-fifth and final session of the Council from the 3rd of December 1563. The main precipitant to this was the arrival of a vocal French delegation who had experienced conflicts generated by aggressive Huguenot iconoclasts.

Even reading the full text of the decrees, their contents are vague and proscriptive, rather than prescriptive. For instruction on what sacred art should do (rather than what should be avoided) we must turn to the treatises written in the years after the Council was dissolved.

In general terms, however, images were required to:

  • Serve as memory aids
  • Serve as bibles for the illiterate
  • Touch and move the viewer in a profound way

There would be no such thing as a single ‘Tridentine style’: rather, the dictums and ideals of the Council were shaped by local politics and cultural norms and applied selectively. Following the dissolution of the Council, a number of texts and treatises were authored and it was these which provided the necessary guidance which would shape the types of sacred images artists felt safe to produce and which became commissioned for private and public devotional use. We shall examine the most significant two of these shortly.

How did the Council of Trent impact on artistic development?

The Council of Trent prescribed three functions for the artistic image, which was sometimes referred to as the biblia pauperum:

  • Memoria – recalling saintly models of the past
  • Excitatio – stirring the senses and the soul
  • Gaudium – the pleasure of ascension to the sublime

But how were artists to action these principles, while still requiring to win prestigious private and public commissions? What in fact was the impact of the Council of Trent on artistic development? Did it smother artistic creation and lead to a decline in art, stifling expression? Or did it lead to a more ‘spiritual’ art, characterised by earthy naturalism? Was it, in fact, the catalyst to the ecstatic emotionality of the Baroque?

Retrospectively, any and all of these positions is tenable. I’d like to look closely at the responses which occurred in the immediate years after the Council was dissolved, both the treatises written and the art produced, to see what the evidence generated at the time tells us about how the Council of Trent changed the course of art history.

What texts and treatises came after the Council of Trent?

In response to the Reformation, Catholics vigorously defended the value attributed to miraculous images as a means by which God manifested his will and invited the veneration of the people, in works such as:

  • De Imaginibus et miraculis sanctorum published in Bologna by Giulio Castellani in 1568
  • Le sette chiese di Roma published by the friend of the Oratorians , a group we shall shortly encounter, Onofrio Panvinio in Rome in 1570
  • The Annales Ecclesiastici, in which Cesare Baronio, a disciple of Filippo Neri, who we shall also meet soon, tackled the theme of sacred images from a historiographic point of view

The Council of Trent’s decree on images sparked the publication of a series of Counter-Reformatory treatises which addressed style in sacred paintings and provided a clear foundation upon which artists might build when making sacred images. The main two were:

  • Giovanni Andrea Gilio (1564) Degli errori e degli abusi de’ pittori (Dialogue on the Errors and Abuses of Painters)
  • Gabriele Paleotti (1582) Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (Hereafter referred to as the Discorso)

In Gilio’s Degli errori, Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ is singled out as the quintessential example of impropriety in sacred imagery due to licentiousness, nudity, confusion and profanity.

Michelangelo ‘Last Judgement’ (1536-1541), Sistine Chapel, Rome

He advocated replacing the artificial maniera style with a natural one, exhibiting honest devotion, urging artists to ‘show the pure and simple truth’. He proposed that a compromise between the old style of icon and a new, natural form of truthful imitation be developed.

Paleotti, in his Discorso, stressed the importance of:

  • Imitation
  • Truth to nature
  • Naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer

We shall now examine his treatise in more detail as it is time for us to examine the considerable influence that he had in Rome around the end of the sixteenth century and his links to other significant influencers.

The protagonists of spiritual change

What is so particular to the development of art in response to the Counter-Reformation and, in particular, the Council of Trent, was how closely its style and content was to become linked to the religious and, more particularly, the spiritual atmosphere of the times. During the Renaissance, the majority of art was sacred rather than secular, and individual works were commissioned by individual patrons or religious organisations, but the material quality of the works produced was shaped by the skills and proclivities of the artists or the aesthetic wishes of the patron, rather than a framework based on contemporary ecclesiastical thought.

Three main individuals appear repeatedly in accounts of the spiritual changes which gripped post-Tridentine Rome and Milan towards the latter part of the cinquecento. Each illustrates attitudes and abilities which, in and of themselves, are worthy of our attention. They were part of a network which drove forward Catholic thought and reform and propelled art in a new direction. They were:

  • Cardinal Carlo Borromeo
  • Saint Filippo Neri
  • Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti

We shall look at each individual life in a moment, but before doing so it is important that we realise that they did not function in isolation and, indeed, had a considerable influence on each other and the wider intellectual and ecclesiastical community in Rome at the time. They also all brought their ideas to bear on Caravaggio.

Reading their correspondence establishes clear evidence of Borromeo’s influence on Paleotti and Paleotti’s on Caravaggio. It also establishes Paleotti’s links to Filippo Neri and the Oratorians. As we shall see, there is no doubt that much of Paleotti’s Discorso is inspired by Borromeo’s position on sacred images.

Borromeo also formed a long friendship with Filippo Neri and was an adherent of his confraternity, as were a number of key patrons and associates of Caravaggio.

Paleotti and Borromeo collaborated at the final sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563, which defined the conditions which would apply to sacred images.

In summary, therefore, there was a concerted effort to establish a canon reformulation on sacred imagery under the guidance of Paleotti and his Discorso, with Caravaggio at its artistic head.

Carlo Borromeo

Portrait by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino

A major figure in cinquecento century Catholicism in Milan was Carlo Borromeo, who was considered the embodiment of saintly virtue even in his lifetime. He was called to Rome in 1559 by his uncle, Pope Pius IV, who named him cardinal deacon and protector of the Franciscans. This order was very close to his heart and shaped his personal faith and devotion. He consciously and concertedly emulated Saint Francis of Assisi and, during a pilgrimage to Rome, he visited La Verna, where Saint Francis received the stigmata, and Assisi itself.

Borromeo played an integral role in the third sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563 and in the implementation of its decrees, particularly that on images. He was made a bishop on 7 December 1563 and Archbishop of Milan on 12 May 1564 and served in this role until his death in 1584. During his tenure the presence of the Observant Friar Minors of Saint Francis took hold right across Lombardy.

In Rome he formed a long and lasting relationship with Filippo Neri. It became his custom to visit the seven pilgrimage churches barefoot, with great humility and devotion, praying out loud as he walked the streets. He was also devoted to the Scala Santa, the steps which Christ ascended to his trial before Pilate. He climbed these steps nearly every day on his knees, a tangible act of humility and devotion. He also washed the feet of pilgrims in his titular church Santa Prassede.

Public acts of penitence and prayer were central to his spirituality; these included erecting crosses throughout Milan, promoting the Forty Hours devotion and vivid re-enactments of Christ’s road to Calvary. During a plague outbreak in July 1576 he ministered to victims every day and processed through the streets of Milan with the city’s most holy relic – the Sacred Nail. He was barefoot and hooded, a rope around his neck, carrying a cross and weeping profusely

Privately, images played a central role for him in promoting penitence and prayer and he fully endorsed the Tridentine position, which he had helped to shape. Borromeo possessed a large collection of sacred paintings, favouring highly emotional and lifelike images which incorporated chiaroscuro, such as by the brothers Campi – Giulio, Antonio and Vincenzo – who played an integral role in the reform movement in Northern Italy.

Giulio Campi ‘Last Supper’ (1569), Cremona Cathedral

Borromeo died in Milan on 3 November 1584. There was a huge outpouring of grief, which Caravaggio would have witnessed. Droves of people continually travelled to the cathedral to pay respects at his tomb. Reports of miracles began soon after his death: many who suffered illness or disability reported being cured by invoking or praying to him, or even by praying to his image or touching objects used by him.

His fame persisted after his death and he was canonised in 1610.

The relationships which Caravaggio established with ecclesiastical cardinal-patrons, many of whom we will encounter later, and religious orders during his sojourn in Rome from 1592 to 1606 are seen as instrumental in his awareness of Counter-Reformation prescriptions and devotion. This fundamental understanding, however, developed not in Rome but in Lombardy, under the spiritual and postural aegis of Carlo Borromeo. In Rome, Borromeo’s visible and public demonstrations of humility, charity and piety, contributed hugely to the formulation of Caravaggio’s sacred style.

Borromeo insisted that images could imprint a scene or message which entered the hearts of the faithful and which words could not achieve. He is quoted as saying that ‘painting is a language painters speak not to men’s ears but rather to men’s souls’. One can imagine Caravaggio taking these words to heart as he considered the direction his art was about to take.

Filippo Neri

Filippo Neri was born in Florence and active in Rome from 1533 until his death in 1595. In Rome, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents (Santissima Trinita de’ Pellegrini e de’ Convalescenti) whose main objective was to minister to the needs of thousands of pilgrims who flocked to Rome as well as to care for those discharged from hospitals but still too weak to work. He also founded the Congregation of the Oratory, usually known as the Oratorians, in 1551. The Oratory was a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but bound by no vows. The objects were prayer, preaching and the sacraments. The Order remains active worldwide today.

Neri preached simplicity, immediacy, affectivity and humility. His members meditated before images in the practice of their spiritual exercises, bringing forth vivid visualisations of scenes from Christ’s life. Such spiritual exercises trace back to the time of Saint Francis of Assisi. He shared the views of other ecclesiastical figures involved in the debate on images, including Carlo and Federico Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti.

For Neri, art served as a catalyst to move the affetti, the passions of the soul, to translate visual pleasure into a process that uses the senses to journey from mundane beauty to divine glory. I am reminded of him when I recall my first experience of Jacopo Pontormo’s altarpiece for the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita in Florence. As I stood in awe, transfixed by the colours of the newly restored work, I felt a huge emotional response, being moved to tears. I am not someone who easily shows his emotions and, having no faith, this was not a ‘religious’ experience, at least not in the concrete meaning of the term. Neither was I alone; among several in the chapel, beside me stood a very elderly gentleman, weeping openly. Our eyes met briefly, he nodded at me in a shared understanding, quietly said, ‘Pontormo, Pontormo’ and smiled.

Neri’s reactions before various works of art involved the senses at the highest degree – he is recorded as fainting in front of Federico Barocci’s ‘Visitation of the Virgin’ in the Chinese Nuova, weeping before a Crucifix when attending lectures in San Marco in Florence, and seized by tremors before a painting of ‘Saint John the Baptist’. Guido Reni painted ‘Saint Philip’ for his titular chapel in the Chiesa Nuova, in which he is represented kneeling before an apparition of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, lost in rapture as if in heaven.

Guido Reni ‘San Filippo Neri in Ecstasy’ (1614), Chiesa Nuova, Rome

Filippo also experienced visions, such as blood coming from the wounds in a marble bas-relief of Christ ‘Man of Sorrows’ and a revelation that Ferrarese Friar Savonarola, to whom he was devoted, was to be spared the threat of his works being condemned. A vision of Saint John the Baptist also is reported to have come to him and revealed the will of God.

Filippo’s experiences reveal that the contemplation of the beauty and simplicity of a work of art led him directly to mystical ascent and divine revelation. His example of an affective bond with sacred images was followed by his pupils, such as Cesare Baronio, who continued Filippo’s message that a scared image is an earthly counterpart of celestial visions which succeeds, by means of its beauty, in assisting an ascent to God.

Filippo’s beliefs on the transformative qualities of the sacred image informed his decorative program for his church. A miraculous quattrocento fresco of the ‘Madonna and Infant Christ’ was detached from a street wall and hosted in the Chiesa Nuova, also known as Santa Maria in Vallicella; it would become the focus of Peter Paul Rubens’ decoration of the main altar.

The decoration of the individual chapels was conceived as a visualisation of the mysteries of the life of Christ and the Virgin, depicted in the series of altarpieces on each altar, which can still be seen today.

Filippo died on 25 May 1595. He was beatified in 1615 and canonised in 1622. His body lies in his funeral chapel in the Chiesa Nuova.

Gabriele Paleotti

Gabriele Paleotti was born in Bologna in 1522. He became a cardinal on 12 May 1565 and Bishop of Bologna on 13 January 1567. He was a colleague of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, with whom he collaborated at the final sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563. He was part of the group that decided to cover the offending parts of Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’.

Paleotti was named as co-cardinal-protector and Educator of Reform at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1595, with Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a patron of Caravaggio with whom he was residing. He died in 1597 and is buried in Bologna cathedral.

Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti is remembered for one of the main treatises to influence the development of post-Tridentine art, his Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (1582) hereafter referred to as the Discorso. Paleotti consulted widely among ecclesiastical and artistic colleagues to produce two volumes of an intended five of the Discorso, which were subsequently widely disseminated. There is no doubt that much of Paleotti’s Discorso is inspired by Borromeo’s position on sacred images.

Paleotti stressed the importance of:

  • Imitation
  • Truth to nature
  • Naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer

He extolled the virtues of naturalism, liveliness and tangible presence in sacred painting and reaches out directly to artists, charging them with being imitators of nature and upholders of truth, in the service of God. His theory involved three subcategories of ‘delight’, which the painter should seek to induce in viewers:

  • Sensuous delight (animale) – obtained through the senses, with vision the most noble. He  gives precedence to colour and shadow, two components integral to the work of Caravaggio
  • Rational delight (razionale) – imitation as the main aim of depiction
  • Supernatural (sopranaturale) – spiritual delight, a persevering transfixation

In this way, the goal of sacred painting approaches an equivalence to that of the contemporary popular exercises of religious meditation practiced by Carlo Borromeo and Filippo Neri.

Caravaggiohis early life and art


In Rome at the turn of the 17th century one artist in particular fulfilled the objectives of the Council of Trent – Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Michaelangelo Merisi was born in Milan on 29 September 1571. His family came from the small, town of Caravaggio. Through his mother’s family, he had ties to the Sforza-Colonna family, which would prove invaluable in later life, and to the family of Carlo Borromeo.

His father and grandfather died of plague when Caravaggio was six. Aged twelve, his mother apprenticed him to Simone Peterzano, who was a former pupil of Titian. His work, along with that of the Campi, would influence Caravaggio’s initial independent works in Rome. It should be noted that Peterzano’s work adheres closely to the Tridentine decrees.

Caravaggio’s formative years in Milan, therefore, presented him with a complex fabric of Counter-Reformation zeal and devotion, exercises on meditation and a taste for the real and tangible in art, promoted under the auspices of Carlo Borromeo. There is little record of these early years however, and no traces of the works he executed during this time.

It was around the time of his return from Milan to Caravaggio in 1589 that we begin to find records of his temperament and the ‘disturbed and contentious nature’ so promoted by biographers. How does one square his apparent temperamental quirks – strong willed, belligerent, independent – with a compliance and adherence to the new Catholic rhetoric on images? There is some merit in the theory that much of the malice penned by his early biographers was born out of professional jealousy but there are numerous judicial records of infringement of the law, at times minor but at times more serious. His numerous brushes with the law did not forestall his continued success as an artist, although the culmination of these, his being charged with the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, led to him fleeing Rome in 1606. It is my conscious choice not to dwell on the vagaries of Caravaggio’s character, which have been well documented many times, but instead to focus on how and under what influences his artistic style developed.

Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592 and was put in contact with associates of his uncle, Ludovico Merisi. They helped him secure lodgings with Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci. He is recorded as working in the workshop of a Sicilian painter, Lorenzo Carli, then joining that of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, a favourite artist of Pope Clement VIII. Those early paintings which remain extant are all secular in nature and seem to have found a market in collections.

Caravaggio’s early patrons were tied to one another both directly and indirectly. They were either part of, or closely tied to, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and were actively involved with key confraternities and orders in Rome close to Filippo Neri and Carlo Borromeo, including SS. Trinita dei Pellegrini and the Oratorians.

The major patrons whom Caravaggio cultivated on arriving in Rome were:

  • Ottavio Costa – Genoese banker and member of the Confraternity of the SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini
  • Girolamo Vittrice – sottoguardaroba to the popes, close contact of Carlo Borromeo and the Oratorians
  • Cardinal Maffeo Barberini – future Pope Urban VIII
  • Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte – Caravaggio’s first protector, closely tied to Filippo Neri and the Oratorians, to Paleotti and to Federico Borromeo (Carlo’s cousin)
  • Cardinal Federico Borromeo
  • Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and his brother Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani

We shall shortly meet each of these patrons and examine the Caravaggio works which they owned or commissioned. Before this, however, we should touch on the conditions under which Caravaggio’s style blossomed.

How did his style form and develop?

Before we commence our detailed look at individual works, let us consider some general comments about the ways in which Caravaggio’s sacred style formed and developed during his years in Rome from 1599 to 1606.

Most art historians see his Lombard artistic heritage as pivotal to the development of Caravaggio’s sacred style. He would have absorbed the works of Leonardo, in particular his use of shadow and sfumato, which he would develop into his own characteristic tenebrism. As we have seen, he trained with Peterzano and the Cavaliere d’Arpino, and some accounts suggest he may have been familiar with some of the works of Venetian artists, including Giorgione and Titian. It is my belief that rather than an imitative artist, Caravaggio was a man brave and talented enough to paint according to his ideas and values, irrespective of the fact that, without a precedent for his type of imagery, there was no guarantee of critical acceptance.

The relationships which Caravaggio established with ecclesiastical Cardinal-patrons and religious orders during his sojourn in Rome from 1592 to 1606 are seen as instrumental in his awareness of Counter-Reformation prescriptions and devotion. As we have seen, through his network of connections and patrons, Caravaggio was exposed to a variety of spiritual influences, including the humility of Borromeo and of the Oratorians, the Franciscan light of grace and the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of the Jesuits. Through Paleotti’s Discorso, he knew the importance of imitation, truth to nature and naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer.

Our study of the individual masterpieces he created will show us that Caravaggio’s sacred works combine the icon and the narrative, devotion and art into a style which can be understood as positioned between the sacred and the profane. Although sometimes seen by scholars in a negative light, his art will be shown to conform to the spirituality espoused by Carlo Borromeo and to the definitions of the sacred and the profane in Paleotti’s Discorso.

Caravaggio’s Roman patrons

Ottavio Costa

A member of the Genoese nobility and a major papal banker for whom Caravaggio painted ‘Saint Francis in Ecstasy’

‘Saint Francis in Ecstasy’ (1595), Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

This is a very spiritual, introspective work. Saint Francis is seen swooning in the arms of an Angel, with merely his facial features suggesting that he is experiencing deep emotion. Saint Francis had come to embody the new spirituality evoked in the decrees of the Council of Trent and Caravaggio’s painting, which stirs the emotions, demands our empathy and requires our penance, as well as pointing to his acute awareness of Franciscan thought and the impression made upon Caravaggio by the actions and legacy of Carlo Borromeo.


Costa also commissioned the ‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’

‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’ (1604), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

A youthful Baptist is in the wilderness, covered by animal skins, holding a reed cross, surrounded by darkness and illuminated in palpable relief by light emanating from upper left.

The painting evokes penitence: the Saint turns away from the light not towards it. The magnitude of his struggle for truth is shown by his facial expression and the tense, taut position of his limbs.

Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte

Widely regarded as Caravaggio’s first major patron, by 1595 Caravaggio was living with del Monte in the Palazzo Madama. Del Monte served both Cardinal Alessandro Sforza and Cardinal Ferdinando de’Medici, future grand duke of Tuscany. He was an associate of Filippo Neri and the Oratorians.

Del Monte purchased both ‘The Fortune Teller’ and ‘The Cardsharps’ (both c1594)

He commissioned several works from Caravaggio, including secular paintings:

‘The Musicians’ (c1595)

‘The Lute Player’ (c1600)

‘Medusa’ (c1597)

The only sacred work he commissioned is ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’

‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (1598-1599), Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

It is here that Caravaggio’s experimentation with chiaroscuro develops into the signature tenebrism of his mature works.

A single isolated figure before an impenetrable dark background harks back to the traditional iconic devotional images. She is an immediate, tangible, human presence. The cross formed by sword and palm references Christ’s crucifixion. Despite her impending death, she faces us with an expression of courage and strength, inspiring the that though faith will come redemption in the afterlife. We are moved by her plight and awed by her resilience.

Girolamo Vittrice

An active member of the papal court and sottoguardaroba to popes since Gregory XIII, Vittrice accompanied, among others, Cardinals Federico Borromeo, Francesco Maria del Monte, Benedetto Giustiniani and Maffeo Barberini (the future Pope Urban VIII) when Pope Clement VIII visited Ferrara.

He commissioned three works by Caravaggio:

‘The Fortune Teller’ (c1595)

‘Rest on the Flight Into Egypt’

‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1597), Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

This is a complex composition, a pastoral scene akin to the kind of fete champitre that Giorgione was painting in the early cinquecento. I find little of psychological or philosophical meaning in this work; to me it is reminder of the immense artistic ability Caravaggio possessed even at this early stage in his career.

‘The Penitent Magdalene’

‘Penitent Magdalene’ (1594-1595), Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

Saint Mary Magdalene had become seen as a Counter-Reformation model of affective and effective penitence and humility. Caravaggio’s ‘Penitent Magdalene’ simultaneously stays within the bounds of tradition and departs from it.

Critics immediately accused him of ‘pretending’ that his model was the Magdalene and his use of contemporary clothes and jewellery, thus missing his intention to portray a flesh-and-blood person more tangible to the viewer and hence a more effective incitement to penitence and humility.

There is more than a hint of remorse in her posture and the single tear that runs down her cheek. She is like one of us and we look at the image and consider our own worth.

Marchese Vincenzo and Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani

Brothers Marchese Vincenzo, a wealthy banker, and Cardinal Benedetto lived in the Palazzo Giustiniani, across the street from Palazzo Madama. Both were in a social circle tightly bound with adherents to Carlo Borromeo and to the Oratorians.

Benedetto would play a crucial role in Caravaggio’s first two public commissions in Rome at the turn of the century.

There were ten works by Caravaggio in their collection:

‘Lute Player’ (c1596)

‘Portrait of Fillide Melandroni’ (destroyed 1945) – Fillide was a prostitute who modelled for Caravaggio several times, including in the ‘Penitent Magdalene’

‘Amor Victorious’ (1601-2)

‘Crowning with Thorns’

‘Crowning with Thorns’ (1602-1604), Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

This is a brutal portrayal, deliberately designed to emphasise the cruelty of the torturers hammering home the crown and the suffering Christ endured to save the viewer. It is also about how to feel pain, with the endurance and tolerance Christ shows.

‘Portrait of Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani’ (lost)

‘Agony in the Garden’ (destroyed 1945)

‘Penitent Magdalen in the Desert’ (lost)

‘Penitent Saint Jerome’ (lost)

‘Incredulity of Saint Thomas’

‘Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602), Sanssouci, Potsdam

A horizontal form, comprising half-length, close up figures of Christ and three apostles, isolated against a dark background broken only by a single stream of raking light from upper left. The complex geometry of the figures thrusts them into the foreground.

Saint Thomas receives proof of Christ’s resurrection, eyes wide in wonder, fingers probing the wound in his side. Shadows are cast over Thomas, signifying his doubt, but where he reaches into the wound the scene is bathed in light. The composition draws the viewer into the painting, focusing on the facial expressions of the apostles, in particular Thomas, thus directly involving us in feeling the intensity of the process. This is consistent with the Tridentine position that a painting must induce belief in the viewer in order for them to emotionally connect.

Thomas seeks proof that Christ exists as a man in his corporeal world; he receives his proof through touch, the viewer through sight.

Cardinal Federico Borromeo

Del Monte introduced Federico to Caravaggio and helped him acquire, or indeed perhaps gifted him, ‘Basket of Fruit’ (c1596)





















Published by alastairstravels

Hi. Having taken part retirement from work I am fulfilling a long standing ambition to travel and share my experiences

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