Caravaggio: a Catholic genius with all his faults

Despite his personal penchant for confrontation, Caravaggio’s later art focuses increasing on the virtue of humility. Unlike his contemporaries, Caravaggio tended to not place the principal subject in the heart of the canvas as the culmination of the composition, but instead chose to place his sacred figures on the lowest border of the canvas. In the case of the “Adoration of the Shepherds,” as one’s gaze follows the line of figures, the eye descends to find the key figure, the infant Jesus, lying on the ground. One must almost bow to see the Christ Child, emulating the pastors above.

This contrast between the virtues he painted and the violence he lived is best expressed in his unique handling of light and dark. Caravaggio’s signature chiaroscuro infuses his everyday characters and settings with a dramatic element of the supernatural. In the “Supper at Emmaus” from London, the canvas appears to be three men sitting around a table as an innkeeper prepares to take the order. The still life of bread, chicken and fruit on the table look much like typical Roman trattoria fare. But as the mysterious light streams in from its unseen source, bathing the central figure of Christ, the startled apostles recognize Jesus in their midst.

Perhaps this was Caravaggio’s great gift to his Christian tradition of art, his ability to perceive the presence of the supernatural in the midst of the ordinary, mundane and even vulgar.