The Five Most Disturbing Paintings of Caravaggio

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian Baroque artist who grew up near Milan in the small town of, you guessed it, Caravaggio. After years of essentially learning on his own as a teenager (his teacher was lazy), Caravaggio moved on to Rome in the early 1600s, and proceeded to create works of art that have astonished viewers for centuries. The technique developed Caravaggio was “tenebrism”, which expanded on the use of chiaroscuro, or lightness and darkness, to have a more striking impact on the viewer.

Caravaggio was a pimp, brawler and hustler that roamed around the streets of Rome in the 1600s, and carried a giant sword (seriously). Yes, he was a master swordsmith, literally and figuratively, who was eventually forced to flee after killing a man. Caravaggio escaped to Naples where he lived for a few years, and later made his way through Sicily. The artist eventually made his way south to an island, but was imprisoned shortly after becoming a member of The Knights of Malta. Caravaggio made a truly amazing escape (I want to make a movie about it), and returned to Sicily where he continued to produce what would become legendary works of art. After nine months, the violent artist arrived in Naples, and was presumably disfigured in a bar room brawl. The work of Caravaggio takes a drastic turn in quality, which may be due to the artist’s loss of vision. By 1610, Caravaggio was on his way north to be pardoned, but apparently died on a boat headed for Tuscany. The location of Caravaggio’s remains were a mystery for 400 years, until bones in a Tuscan church were identified as those of the great Italian artist. Caravaggio was 38 years old when he died.

Medusa (1597)

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Medusa was created early in Caravaggio’s career at the age of 25. Two versions were made: the first is signed and privately owned, while the second, unsigned version is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. An early benefactor of Caravaggio, the Medici’s family agent, saw the original (discovered posthumously at the artist’s studio), and commissioned Caravaggio to create a new version depicting the strength of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. If you are not familiar with the Medusa myth, she was so ugly that one turned to stone when making eye contact. Perseus used a mirror shield to defeat Medusa via decapitation. Caravaggio used himself as the model, and depicts the moment in which Medusa realizes what is happening.

I attempted to see the painting in 2009, but it was under restoration. In July 2012, I returned to Florence, and was able to get a look, but only after waiting several hours in the horrendous Uffizi Gallery waiting line. Make a reservation online!

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (1607)

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This is one of several Caravaggio paintings depicting the biblical Salome, who during a dinner party, requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The painting is from the artist’s stay in Naples, and Caravaggio once again uses himself as the model. A second version was created in 1609, and apparently sent to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after Caravaggio was kicked out in 1608. I was able to see this painting last year in Los Angeles, which was just two days before I moved after a six year stay. The exhibit was called Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy. My ticket was part of a combo package that also allowed me to see 2012: A Kubrick Odyssey. It was a memorable final Friday in Hollywood.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

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Caravaggio was commissioned by the Knights of Malta to create an alter piece, and this painting still hangs at St. John’s Cathedral in Valetta. The painting once again features Salome and the brutal beheading of John the Baptist. After a restoration in the 1950s, it was discovered that Caravaggio had written his name in blood under the Saint. The artist was “defrocked” by the Knights of Malta “in absentia” in front of this very painting. I was planning to visit Sicily and Malta during my WWOOF experience in the summer of 2012, but my plans crumbled after a robbery in Athens, Greece. Lifetime Sicily stats 0-2 (2009, 2012).

David with the Head of Goliath (1610)

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What do you see when you look at this? I mean other than the severed head of Goliath? Caravaggio depicted himself both as a young boy in David, and also as an adult monster in Goliath. The painting was completed near the end of Caravaggio’s life, and delivered to Cardinal Borghese in Rome as a gift. Who was he? The man who could pardon the artist for his murder, that’s who. Caravaggio served up his own severed head on a platter. A Latin inscription can be seen on David’s sword which translates to “Humility Kills Pride.” I’ve always wanted to see painting in person, but have been Caravaggio-blocked by closed doors on several occasions.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599)

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The story of Judith and Holofernes was embraced by many artists of the 17th century, and Caravaggio’s version inspired many. Holofernes was a general that was seduced by the widow Judith, who proceeded to decapitate him while he was drunk. I was able to see this painting at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, and was amazed by how real it looks. The best way I can describe it (with a modern take) is with Alfonso Cuaron’s new ground-breaking film “Gravity.” How did Cuaron do that? How did Caravaggio do that? The painting looks alive, and you can almost feel the shock of Holofernes.

Caravaggio was one of a kind.

Follow Quinn onĀ Twitter, and check out the video below about Caravaggio’s influence on Martin Scorsese.

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One Response to The Five Most Disturbing Paintings of Caravaggio

  1. Carol Stigger says:

    My favorite artist! I’m on a quest to see off of his paintings…