Forbidden fruit

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Caravaggio led a turbulent life and was often in trouble with the law. Ann Clayton looks at how his portrayal of intense emotion engages the viewer with the drama of the moment

Before television and printed books, paintings were a method of communication and propaganda. For the Catholic Church facing the challenge of the Reformation, art was a means of teaching the largely illiterate masses about faith in an engaging way. The period later called the Baroque was marked by a colourful, realistic artistic style of which the first proponent was the artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

In a short but eventful life which included imprisonment and charges of assault, murder and slander, Caravaggio produced paintings notable for their dramatic effect. After a four-year apprenticeship in Milan, he went to Rome where, for little more than food and lodging, he moved from studio to studio producing jobbing works, mainly portraiture and still life. At this time, the still life was a new art form, rich with unspoken meaning, and Caravaggio became an expert in its symbolism. For instance, his "Bowl of Fruit" (1596) is not only a realistic representation, it includes metaphors for the viewer to read - shrivelled leaves and a wormhole in the apple - representing the illusion of the ideal and the reality of the decay of living things.

By 1597, he could be referred to as the "famous painter Caravaggio". In that year, he received his first public commission, three paintings depicting the life of St Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The pictures have all the characteristics that would both define his style and attract criticism. For Caravaggio, they provided a public audience for this new style of painting. He placed biblical scenes in contemporary settings, using friends and models dressed in the clothes of the day. His saints are not identifiable by their halo, their position on a pedestal or throne, their pose or the colours of their clothes. Images in the Contarelli Chapel surround the viewer; the pictures are close emotionally and physically. In each scene the action is illuminated by the dramatic use of light contrasting with a dark background.

The pieces were accused of indecorum for being too real. Despite this, and his brushes with the law, members of the Church, including a future pope, provided Caravaggio with patronage throughout his career. While many of his works were displayed in churches, Caravaggio was aware of the less divine aspects of man. His early pictures, using young men as models, are sensual, and it is an earthy sensuality. "Bacchus" (c1594), surrounded by flowers and fruit, offers us a glass of wine, but has thick grime beneath his fingernails.

By 1604, when Caravaggio appears in police records three times, his fame had travelled to Holland, where it was noted: "He swaggers about I his sword at his side and a servant behind him and goes from one ball game to another ever ready for a duel or scuffle." After a dispute over a game of tennis, Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606, accused of murder. He travelled to Naples and then Malta, where he continued to paint. He died of natural causes in Port'Ercole on his way back to Rome in 1610.

In "Boy Bitten by a Lizard" (c1595-1600), the young boy, reaching for some fruit, has been bitten by a small lizard hidden in the darkness. The picture is sensual: the white robe hanging off the shoulder, the plumpness of the flesh gleaming. To an audience used to reading metaphor, the symbolism would have been obvious. The overblown flower in the vase represents life cut short, the white rose behind the ear love and purity, the cherries in the fruit bowl sexual lust and the lizard jealousy and deceit. For today's viewer unaware of the symbolism, it is the expression on the model's face that is fascinating. His mouth is open in shock as he pulls away. Is it just a painful bite or more serious? What is the lizard doing there? How did the lizard feel - does it have its own version of events?

Caravaggio's work is dramatic, whether religious or secular. The models have familiar features, but often their expressions and gestures express a moment of intense emotion. Critics have suggested that he developed the expressions by drawing himself grimacing in a large mirror. His central characters are frequently bathed in bright light emerging from a dark background; rays hit faces and props that are rendered in great detail.

Caravaggio's contemporaries said that he painted in a darkened room by lantern light to achieve the contrast of light and dark. His influence can be seen in the work of artists like Rembrandt and Rubens.

'Boy Bitten by a Lizard' can be seen as part of the exhibition Flowerpower at Norwich Castle Museum until May 5 and the Millennium Galleries, Sheffield, May 24 to August 25.

Ann Clayton is the education officer at the Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust

Lesson ideas

Can students sketch the differences in expression when they pull faces in a mirror? A picture can act as the centrepiece for a story: what happened before? What will happen next? Pupils can look at the evidence in the paintings and record suggestions in words and pictures. How would they describe the boy bitten by a lizard? How does he compare with themselves? None of the artist's sketches survives, and X-rays suggest that he worked straight on to canvas, often changing the composition. He used old masters for inspiration, copying poses from memory. Like his contemporaries, he mixed his own paint, white from ground bones and black from soot, using linseed oil as a binder. Making and mixing paint is messy and fun; and it helps pupils understand the hard graft that is often necessary in art.

Key stage 2

* Make faces look real. Make minute sketches of a model, concentrating on realistic proportions. Divide an oval into thirds - the eyes are in the middle section, with eyebrows roughly level with the tops of the ears; the mouth is in the bottom third. Necks are chunky to support the weight of the head rather than thin and long.

* Collect newspaper advertisements with a range of expressions and examine the differences.

Practice drawing expressions using a model expressing shock joysadnesssurprisepassion - concentrate on changes in mouth and eye shapes

* Find a picture or photo that shows movement and draw outlines of the shapes.

lDevelop shading skills: draw a thin oblong and divide it into six. Using 4b pencils, can the children shade from light to dark - make more sections to create a greater challenge.

* Choose an object and light it with an OHP or angle-poise lamp. Using B pencils, mark the shadows, carefully grading their depth.

KS3 and 4

* Caravaggio rarely signed his works, yet critics are usually able to identify them. Using a collection of postcards, can children identify work by a particular artist? Ask them to give reasons for their decision using artistic vocabulary.

* Light and dark: using an OHP or angle-poise lamp, shine light on different places on an object and record the differences.

* Perspective: Examine the way Caravaggio shows perspective. Draw quick sketches of people in difficult views.


G Wolfe, Dulwich Picture Gallery Children's Art Book, Bellew Publishing, pound;9.95Tel: 020 82998704 For portraits, visit Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 157173-1610

Michelangelo Merisi, born in Caravaggio, Italy, began painting in 1597.

Leading a troubled life, he appeared frequently in police records involving violent incidents. In 16056 he painted 'The Death of the Virgin'; contemporaries criticised the model's 'bloated belly'. In 1606 he fled Rome after stabbing a man over tennis. He still worked for the Church as a fugitive and in 1610 died days before receiving the Pope's pardon.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today