The artist Caravaggio is probably one of the greatest artists on painting the depraved condition of man.  Interestingly enough, his skill was linked with his own experience of it.

I’ve begun watching an excellent DVD series by Simon Schama called The Power of Art.  I’m borrowing it from a friend right now (Thanks Tim!  There’s a shout-out to ya…)  Mr. Schama explores several artists and their life by focusing on one particular piece of art of theirs and what led them to that point of creating it.  Most often than not, some of their greatest work was the result of tragedy.

With the Italitan artist Caravaggio (1571-1610), it seems his whole life was one of intermittent tragedy.  But it was not because of poverty or a physical ailment that led him to some really low points in his life, but because of his own actions.

In fact, the man almost had it all– he was trained in Milan under a master and then moved to Rome in his early 20s.  Huge new churches were being built in Rome in the decades of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Of course, paintings were needed to fill them, as well as the fact that the Catholic church searched for authentic religious art with which to counter the Protestant Reformation.  Catholics viewed art as an aid to worship, while Protestants felt it could be a temptation towards idolatry.  Thus, Caravaggio was hired, but he brought a brutal realism to the nature of man by portraying life-like expressions and emotions on his subjects faces, and used the shifting from light to dark to heighten the contrasts.   Plus, he didn’t try to “perfect” his subjects, but left wrinkles, warts, and all.  Two of his first successful paintings in 1600 were the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and Calling of Saint Matthew (painting above).   Thereafter, it seemed he always had commissions or patrons knocking on his doorstep, yet he handled his success in the most narcissistic manner possible by getting drunk almost every night, threatening others with a sword to their throat, getting into fights, or bursting in a temper at the slightest jest to his pride.

Then finally in 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome with a price on his head.  He flees to Naples, and then makes it to Malta.  It is at these places that he creates more paintings of biblical scenes that clearly recognize the lostness and depravity of man’s sin.  One can accurately assume that he would know from experience.  But if you think that with the reality of knowing his own lostness would lead him to the freedom shown in the grace of the gospel of Christ, especially since he’s painting biblical scenes, he never quite makes it there.

In Malta in 1608 he is involved in another brawl, and yet another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies. By the next year, after a relatively brief career, he is dead.  But one of his last pieces of work is the most interesting.  It’s David with the Head of Goliath.  Of course, it’s a self portrait.  But Caravaggio isn’t David.  He’s Goliath.  Dirty silver, black and browns dominate the picture.   Interestingly, on the sword is an abbreviated inscription: H-AS OS, in Latin: Humilitas occidit superbiam (“Humility kills pride”).  But the humility of Carvaggio leads him to despair.  It may have killed his pride, but it ends up crushing his soul.  Why?  I think it’s because he never understood the grace of God shown in the gospel of Christ.  It’s as if he recognizes the magnitude of his sin, but he never recognizes the even greater magnitude of the grace of Jesus Christ.

May we never be lost in despair of our sin, but know that “he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

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