Shared glory

23rd February 2001 at 00:00
Annie Harris discusses how ordinary people and events, and even we as viewers, are drawn into Caravaggio's biblical scene and exalted by his use of light and line.

The 'Genius of Rome 1592-1623' exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London contains paintings by artists who had come to Rome from all over Europe to seek work and to meet other artists at this time. It must have been rather like Paris in the early 1900s. While Protestant countries had destroyed nearly all their religious art and did not believe that art should be used in the service of religion, the Catholic Church was eager to employ artists to paint the Christian story and to advertise its Counter-Reformation. In this way the Catholic Church, and the three popes who presided over this period in Rome, hoped to ward off an exodus from the fold. Roman churches were restored and new ones built to draw people in with their elaborate gilded altarpieces and the richness of their architectural detail.

Rome was a city of extreme contrasts: the popes and cardinals of this period owned incredibly elegant palaces that required paintings and sculptures to embellish them. The arts flourished in the houses of the great families, as did gambling, tennis and swordplay. At the same time, cheek by jowl, there was unimaginable poverty that was the inspiration for charitable works much encouraged by the reformed Catholic Church and for new religious orders. Out-of-work soldiers, prostitutes and the hopelessly poor jostled at night through torch-lit streets and brawls and riots were barely contained by a weak police force.

There were hundreds of artists in Rome at this time and they too roamed the streets and gambled in taverns, played tennis and got into brawls. Among these young artists who were painting at this time, it was Caravaggio who created a new style of art based on realism. Caravaggio found visual inspiration for many of his paintings in the violent torch-lit scenes he witnessed nightly. His ideas had an enormous influence on his contemporaries and on future painters. He liked to work in a dim studio where he could create strong contrasts of light and dark: a raking light was cast on his models from one side, usually the left.

The Entombment (1602-3) is a brilliant example of the dramatic realism for which Caravaggio was so celebrated. It was painted in oil on canvas to hang above an altar in the dim light of the church, the same light from the left that we see in the picture. The figures stand out in three dimensions against a dark background. As viewers, our eye is level with the dark tomb: Christ is being lowered into our space.

On looking up, we meet the direct gaze of Nicodemus that draws us in to the story and the space. Our next impression is of the heaviness of Christ's body and the straining muscularity of a pair of legs on the right which seem to support a unified structure of grieving faces and outstretched hands. The mourners arch down towards Christ's body in an almost cinematic way, as if they are stop frames. The men and women partake of each other's actions, strength and emotions because it is so hard to separate them visually. For example, the legs of the woman on the right (probably Mary Cleophas) seem surprisingly strong and muscular for a woman until we realise that they belong to Nicodemus, who is bent over, lowering Christ into the tomb. Students might like to make a three-dimensional sculpture of the arched group of figures, showing how unified the group is.

Notice how it is twisted, turning away from us: it draws us in as it twists away. The corner of the stone and Nicodemus's elbow cut the picture plane and Christ's legs project forward at an angle. The group as a whole is on a diagonal with the picture plane and this weeps the viewer in. The figures are realistic and angular; they lack the typical Classical grace of, say, Raphael. This is especially noticeable in the inelegant strength of Nicodemus's legs and the way that they meet the stone in an uncompromising right angle.

Caravaggio is famous for using his friends and "lower class" people as models. He does not appear to idealise these models and this helps to make his paintings even more realistic. Ordinary people, while being attracted into the gilded and ornate church by its splendour, would suddenly find themselves looking at people just like them, surrounded by a rich gold frame above an ornate altar. Imagine the feeling of self-esteem they would feel, seeing working people framed in such glory above the altar. Combined with his creation of a dramatic and convincing pictorial space, it was the realism of the character and their "boy-next-door" quality that created an illusion of reality for the viewer.

The Church, in its attempt to combat Protestantism, considered Caravaggios's dramatic realism a powerful tool in winning over ordinary people. (Significantly, however, there were times when Caravaggio went too far: some of his religious paintings were rejected by his patrons as being too "low life".) But The Entombment is one of Caravaggio's most celebrated paintings. It is now in the Vatican and we are amazingly lucky to be able to see it on loan in London. Caravaggio made no drawings for his paintings, unlike other famous painters in this exhibition, such as Annibale Carracci, who believed in the importance of disegno ("design" or "drawing". This word comes from the phrase segno di Dio which means "a sign from God" because it was believed that God guided the artist's hand). Annibale composed his paintings with drawings made from life and from antique sculptures. Caravaggio, on the other hand, was one of the first to paint straight on to the canvas, using models posed in appropriate costumes. He sometimes incised the figures on to the dark ground of his canvases, but he made no preliminary studies.

Students might enjoy painting from a Caravaggesque figure or still-life set up, (Caravaggio was also a painter of incredible still-lifes), with a dark background and raking light, so that they can see only those parts of a form that catch the light. The pattern of light and dark across the picture plane shows only the story-telling essentials while highlighting the form and giving an impression of three dimensionality.

Annie Harris is acting head of education at the Royal Academy of Arts.

THE GENIUS OF ROME 1592-1623 THE exhibition is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until April 16. Group visits, gallery talks and workshops can be booked in advance, tel: 020 7300 5995.

Primary workshops (minimum 20, maximum 30 students) run from 10.15am to 1.00 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays (lunch can be eaten in the workshop space). Workshops include a slide discussion, a visit to the gallery in small groups of three or four with a trained volunteer, and a practical workshop.

Secondary workshops (for up to 30 students) run from 10.15am to 2.30pm (times flexible) on Mondays and Wednesday (lunch can be eaten in the galleries). Workshops include a slide discussion, a visit to the gallery and a practical workshop. All workshops must be booked in advance Publications Teachers' Pack: colour-illustrated introduction to the exhibition with teachers' notes. Send an A4 sae with a 60p stamp or collect from reception. Student Guide: 12-page guide for 14 to 18-year-olds, which is free with their ticket.

Exhibition Explorer guide for the younger visitor, free with their ticket.

The Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly,London W1J 0BD.


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