Mild Applause: Caravaggio's Rejected Altarpieces

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Inspiration of Saint Matthew (second version), c.1602

Oil on canvas, 295x195cm

Rome, Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi

While 21st century viewers may collectively applaud Caravaggio’s innovative interpretation of religious scenes, Caravaggio’s own 17th century audience was clearly less unanimous. Caravaggio’s naturalised style both supported and challenged the prevailing aesthetic of Post-Tridentine Rome. As a result of his unorthodox interpretations of Biblical narratives, Caravaggio occasionally experienced rejection of his works on the basis that he breached Christian decorum. In particular, the rejected altarpieces of the first version of Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi and The Death of the Virgin (1607) for the Cherubino Chapel in Santa Maria della Scala demonstrate this controversy surrounding Caravaggio’s public works. By comparing Caravaggio’s first and last altar-piece paintings, it can be seen how Caravaggio’s humanisation of religious themes often conflicted with the Catholic Church’s desire to maintain an image absolute authority during the Counter Reformation.

   
  
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   Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio     Inspiration of Saint Matthew  (first version), c.1602    Oil on canvas, 223x183cm    [destroyed in World War II]

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Inspiration of Saint Matthew (first version), c.1602

Oil on canvas, 223x183cm

[destroyed in World War II]

For those commissioning a religious altarpiece for a public setting, Caravaggio’s style of realism was both an attraction and deterrent. It was considered both his artistic strength and weakness. The degree of naturalism with which Caravaggio depicted Biblical figures was viewed favourably as complying with the Council of Trent’s declaration that religious art must be intelligible. Although it was effective in creating clarity and an immediacy of the scene, 17th century critics were weary of the manner in which Caravaggio’s naturalism treated sacred figures which resulted in a lack of idealisation. For instance, Bellori claimed that the priests of San Luigi rejected the first version of Inspiration of Saint Matthew “saying that the figure had neither the decorum nor the aspect of a saint, being seated with his legs crossed and his feet crudely exposed to the public.”[1] In regards to Matthew’s pose, Bellori’s description contradicts what was considered acceptable iconography for an evangelist portrait during the period. Thus, Bellori’s criticism is partially incorrect since the pose is derived from early Christian imagery in which Matthew was traditionally depicted sitting cross-legged as he writes the gospel with a muse or angel by his side. What is revealing about Bellori’s remarks is the noted concern for the breach of decorum, and it is more likely one of the main reasons the priests objected to the first work. Not only did Caravaggio disregard the conventional classical treatment of Matthew’s appearance in order to denote his saintly virtue, Caravaggio’s interpretation is further unorthodox and thus a breach of decorum in suggesting that the evangelist is illiterate. This lack of learning is conveyed by his incredulous expression with eyes wide open at the sight of the written word. By making Matthew illiterate and consequently dependent on the angel’s assistance in writing the scripture, the notion of earthly ignorance transformed into spiritual understanding through God’s word is highlighted. A plebeian trait such as illiteracy contradicted Tridentine decree that the stature and role of the saints is to remind the viewer of God’s grace. Consequently, the patron and clergy could not accept the earthly depiction of the saint and requested that Caravaggio ennoble Matthew by traditional visual means. Accordingly, in the second version of the work (see Figure 2), Matthew has been transformed from a dullard of low social standing [2] into a dignified scholar reflecting God’s superior rationality. In this way, the evangelist becomes less of an intermediary and more of an independent agent capable of conveying God’s word with minimal divine assistance. The modified appearance of Matthew reflects the Catholic Church’s desire to maintain its high status as an independent divine agency in the eyes of the public during the Counter Reformation.

The issue of a sacred figure’s appearance continued to cause displeasure for those who commissioned an altarpiece from Caravaggio as seen with The Death of the Virgin commissioned for the Cherubino Chapel. The chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, was to have an altare morturum which would echo the promise of the Virgin’s intercession at the moment of a Carmelite’s death. [3] Mancini, a contemporary of Caravaggio, claimed that Caravaggio’s model for the Holy Mother in The Death of the Virgin was “some dirty prostitute from the Ortaccio.”[4] This comment conveys the outrage expressed toward the artist’s demoralisation of the ‘most blessed of all women.’ However, the rumoured lowly status of the model was not the sole reason for the controversy surrounding the depiction of the mother of God. What was even more objectionable was the Virgin’s corpse-like appearance. Rather than portray a traditional slumbering Virgin, Caravaggio chose to portray a more realistic and human depiction of initial body decay; thus, the body of Mary is bloated, the skin is a sickly pallor, and her limbs are limp. Instead of using the Northern Italian tradition of conveying the Virgin’s royal role as queen of heaven by placing her sleeping body in a red-canopied bed,[5] Caravaggio emphasised her humility through the use of a sparse room where Mary lies on a simple cot with a red curtain in the background (which alludes to the former iconography of a canopy). In fact, the only symbol used to denote the Virgin’s divine status is her halo. Although the viewer is encouraged to sympathise with the lifeless form of the Virgin in her impoverished surroundings, Caravaggio’s construction of spectator involvement by humanising the Holy Mother was seen as unacceptable to the Carmelite order.

   
  
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     Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio     The Death of the Virgin,  c.1606    Oil on canvas, 369x249cm    Paris, Musée du Louvre

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Death of the Virgin, c.1606

Oil on canvas, 369x249cm

Paris, Musée du Louvre

In determining the reason behind the rejection of Caravaggio’s altarpieces, it is important to also consider his controversial representation of divine intervention. In the example of Inspiration of Saint Matthew, divine intervention is embodied in the presence of the angel. In the first version, Matthew and the angel share an intimacy conveyed by their close proximity and by their equal effort in writing the gospel as the angel guides Matthew’s hand. Although physically connected, Caravaggio contrasts the two figures through the use of light which behaves differently on their respective forms.The lithe angel maintains soft outlines while the coarse features of Matthew are given sculptural weightiness through shadow. The use of chiaroscuro illuminates the threshold between ignorance and knowledge since Matthew’s learning to write from the angel is a metaphor for the world’s learning the truth from God.[6] Despite the fact that the closeness between the angel and the saint signifies a spiritual communion with God, this physical intimacy must have been considered unsettling to the patrons because these two figures are clearly separated from each other in the second version. Rather than depicting a humanist relationship with the angel, the second version adopted an older medieval method showing the angel as a spectacular apparition emerging from heaven above and behind,[7] which was a return to a more conservative mystical formula. Thus, the Church’s emphasis on maintaining hierarchy is revealed in the reversion of Inspiration of Saint Matthew through the intellectualisation of the evangelist and the physical separation of the angel from the saint.

Ironically, while there was objection to including visual elements of intimacy with the existing iconography for the image of Saint Matthew, Carmelite clergy complained that there were no elements of divinity or supernatural intervention in The Death of the Virgin. Caravaggio did not utilize the conventional imagery for the Dormitition in which a cluster of angels on clouds preside above the Virgin welcoming her into heaven, but rather, depicted a group of grief-stricken Apostles surrounding the Virgin’s deathbed, creating a minimal cast of plebeian actors on a near empty stage. [8] By omitting the ceremonial presentation of the Virgin’s death, Caravaggio is able to present the unrelieved sorrow of ordinary mortal death[9] without divine intervention thus inciting the viewer to sympathise with the scene instead of paying the traditional homage to it. Rather than depict a divine biblical narrative in The Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio presents to the viewer a human drama filled with pathos.

While Caravaggio received criticism for the appearance of his Biblical figures and his representation of the divine, it is also important to examine the reasons for his rejection based on religious doctrine. Caravaggio’s transgression of Catholic dogma is particularly evident in his choice of the moment of death in The Death of the Virgin. Disregarding the term of his contract with Cherubino which stated the painting should depict the ‘virgin in transit,’[10] Caravaggio shows her death. Not only did Caravaggio’s choice of a dying moment go against the contract’s description of the scene, Mary as a corpse went against Catholic doctrine which stated that the Virgin ascended into heaven both spiritually and bodily. Since the Virgin was without sin, her mortal life ended when she fell into a state of sleep (the Dormitition) until the third day she ascended into heaven (the Assumption). Not only does Caravaggio’s representation of the Virgin contradict Catholic theology, it also sympathises with Protestant Reform which argued that the Virgin died an ordinary death. Thus, in an effort to achieve naturalism and spectator involvement, Caravaggio depicted a human drama that reflected the Protestant belief that neither the Dormition nor the Assumption took place. By understanding the theological justification for the rejection of The Death of Virgin, the controversy surrounding Caravaggio’s attempt to humanise biblical narrative can be better understood in terms of the religious climate of the Counter-Reformation.

 This fine line between Catholic and Protestant belief can also be observed in the first version of Inspiration of St Matthew through the choice of text included by Caravaggio to signify God’s word. Although the original manuscript of Matthew’s gospel no longer existed, Christian theologians unanimously agreed that the original language of Matthew’s text was Hebrew. However, with the rumbles of the Reformation in northern Europe, Erasmus of Rotterdam raised the question of whether the received text was indeed translated from a Hebrew original. Erasmus thought it more probable that Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Greek, the same language as the other gospels. Such doubt about the origins of the New Testament was regarded by papal officials to be a threat to the foundations to the Catholic Church. [11] Thus, the Hebrew text included by Caravaggio seems to support the authenticity of the Hebrew version; yet, upon closer examination, it is revealed that Caravaggio’s source was from a Gospel version published in 1582 by Münster, a Protestant Hebraist. [12] Not only did Caravaggio reference a Protestant translation, but he also corrected the grammar of Münster’s text. One could argue that by altering the syntax, Caravaggio indicated the reformer’s inaccuracy in his interpretation of the gospel, but it could also be argued that by altering the Hebrew version, Caravaggio sympathised with the Protestant questioning of the Catholic conviction to the veracity of the Vulgate. Such ambiguity about Caravaggio’s intention may partly explain why the first version was rejected and also why the second version denies the viewer access to what Matthew is writing.

Despite examining the various reasons for the rejection of Caravaggio’s altarpieces, is it accurate to view these works as a failure in the eyes of a 17th century public? After all, the first version of Inspiration of Saint Matthew was immediately purchased by the wealthy and influential Marchese Giustiniani, and The Death of the Virgin was added to the collection of the Duke of Mantua. Thus, while Caravaggio’s vision may have seemed inappropriate in the religious public sphere of the Counter Reformation, it maintained a visual appeal for the elite in a private space away from Tridentine censure. Although Caravaggio’s humanisation of sacred figures and unorthodox representation of the divine clashed with the conservative religious doctrine of the period, even his rejected works still received a mild applause for its innovation.

© Courtney Ahlstrom Christy 2014-2018

Ahlstrom Appraisals | Personal Property Appraisals and Art Consultations | Serving Atlanta & Southeast | Fine Art, Antiques & Vintage  

[1] Bellori, G. Le Vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti moderni, Rome, 1672, 2.

[2] Puglisi, C. Caravaggio, London, 1998, 180.

[3] Parks, R. “On Caravaggio’s Dormition of the Virgin and Its Setting,” The Burlington Magazine, 127, 1985, 442.

[4] Warwick, G. Ed. Caravaggio: Realism Rebellion, Reception, Cranbury, 2006, 28.

[5] Puglisi, C. Caravaggio, London, 1998, 185.

[6] Lavin, I. Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio’s Two St. Matthews,” The Art Bulletin, 56, 1974, 62.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Puglisi, C. Caravaggio, London, 1998, 197.

[9] Moir, A. Caravaggio, 1989, New York, 30.

[10] Parks, R. “On Caravaggio’s Dormition of the Virgin and Its Setting,” The Burlington Magazine, 127, 1985, 439.

[11] Lavin, I. Divine Inspiration in Caravaggio’s Two St. Matthews,” The Art Bulletin, 56, 1974, 62.

[12] Ibid., 66.