August 18, 2002


St John the Baptist, Caravaggio (1602) (Jonathan Jones, August 17, 2002, The Guardian)
Distinguishing features: The body of Saint John slices through the surface of this painting. Flashes of brightly lit flesh - on his neck, shoulder and legs - seem to shear through the dark canvas.

It is a painting torn apart by light and sexuality. Something is very wrong. And something is wrong, too, with art historians' desire to see Caravaggio as a conservatively Catholic painter who used realism to intensify an orthodox message. He is nothing of the kind here. This painting is heterodox - perhaps not theologically, but aesthetically: its effect is not pious. Even at the level of iconography, something is askew: why does this Saint John hug a horned ram when his symbol is supposed to be the lamb? Horny beasts are figures of lust.

Stranger still is the way the boy looks directly at us, with a saucy grin on his flushed face. It is a breach of all decorum, setting up a destructive tension. He seems to laugh at his own pretence, as he curves his body to mimic one of Michelangelo's male nudes. The crumpled sheet and blanket suggest a bed in the artist's studio, not the wilderness implied by an afterthought of vegetation in the foreground.

Sensuality and religiosity are the two poles of Renaissance art. By putting them together, Caravaggio disturbs and reinvents the idea of painting itself; he discovers in painting a violent, untamed authority.

There's a neat feature at the Guardian that I'd not noticed before. Each week Jonathan Jones has a brief essay about a Portrait of the week, with a little bit about the artist, the work, and the influences that produced it. Each links to a an online version of the work in question. here's where you can find the Caravaggio. Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2002 6:38 AM
Comments for this post are closed.