Piety and Humanity: The Last Years of Caravaggio

As a Maltese man writing about Caravaggio I feel a sense of privileged connection that I am deprived with so many a great artist. Growing up I always remember Sunday visits to the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. A masterpiece which, even without its Caravaggios, ranks, personally, as one of the most awe-inspiring church in Christendom.

            Within its oratory – designed by the Knights of St. John’s pet artist, Mattia Pteri to be a place for sombre reflection for novice knights confronting the very real possibility of martyrdom for the faith – lies slumbering, in the fitting murk, two luminous paintings by Caravaggio. One of which, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, has two distinct honours: it is the largest canvas ever painted by Caravaggio and the only one that bears his signature.

            And what a signature! Cast out of your mind any idea of a neat, formal signature at the bottom right of the painting, or a signature subtly hidden on a piece of clothing in the painting. Caravaggio didn’t do subtletly. His name takes centre-stage and flows out of the blood gushing from the semi-severed head of the patron saint of the Order, St. John the Baptist.

            This wasn’t done merely for effect nor artistic daring; Caravaggio, a convicted murdered, was begging for forgiveness for his blood-letting to St. John, and thus, in a thinly-veiled manner, to the Knights of St. John themselves. He hoped to find redemption here in Malta. Not to mention protection. Our island was a surreal one then. Ruled by an all-male religious order of warrior monks, founded during the crusades, now finding themselves at war with the passing of time. Malta was an archaic relic, frozen in time, but for someone like Caravaggio, it was just violent and profane enough to call home.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

            After a year on Malta, Caravaggio was made inducted into the Order as a novice. He paid for his entrance into the aristocratic Order with the Beheading of St. John. It seemed a good deal. The Knights, lead by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, acquired Italy’s greatest painter, and Caravaggio, the perpetual dreamer, earned himself the noble title he always believed he was owed.

            What I didn’t know, growing up on Malta, near Valletta, full of boyish awe at the grizzly painting, was how in some way, Caravaggio’s time in Malta was the beginning of the end for him. I always imagined the painting the work of a man’s private golden age, a peak, a high. And indeed it was. For a time. Just over a year after he arrived in Malta – this I knew well enough from my history lessons at school – Caravaggio was arrested by the Knights, thrown into the inhumane guva of the impregnable Fort St. Angelo, and escaped shortly after, never to return, never, in fact, to escape the shadow of death, a shadow which wore the eight-pointed cross of the Order.

            Caravaggio escaped Malta in 1608. In 1610 he would be dead. His death and the man or men who carried it out have long been a great mystery, just as irresistible as his oeuvre. In the last few years of his life after his escape from Malta, Caravaggio was as prolific as ever before. And yet, something seemed to have changed in his paintings. It’s as though his experience in Malta was some kind of final straw and Caravaggio, the perennial trouble-maker and trouble-seeker, began to look inward.

            It’s even possible to say that in the later paintings of Caravaggio we can see a man seeking redemption before our very eyes.

The Raising of Lazarus

            In this painting from 1608, The Raising of Lazarus, which he painted in Messina, we find an artwork that is full of doubt, full of mortality and shorn of light. The photo here does not do the painting justice. They never do. I can never get the same sensation of looking at a photo of the Beheading that I do when being stood before it. It’s like looking at a death-mask. Even so, you can get a feel here, that Caravaggio had veered in favour of the oscuro rather than the chiaro.

            Lazarus looks almost reluctant to rise. His body is limp, his head falling to the ground. Yet his right arm reaches out and stretches towards the light, the light of salvation. Christ points towards his hand, as if demanding Lazarus to rise. It’s almost as if there’s a war raging on between life and death within the body of Lazarus, the two fighting over their prize, their possession. We know of course, according to the Biblical story, that Jesus wins the day and Lazarus does rise from the dead; but Caravaggio, at this point in his life, was weary of happy endings. Life and death was also warring over his body at the time.

Adoration of the Shepherds

            Whilst in Messina he also painted the Adoration of the Shepherds. This painting is a spiritual painting. And that is not something so easily said of other Caravaggio paintings. This is less about his Lombard flair for gritty realism; the golden sheen of the light and the radiance raining down on the figures is almost Byzantine. Caravaggio has always, not undeservedly, been called a rebellious painter. There is no greater rebellion an artist can carry out against himself.

            This is not completely un-Caravaggio. There is still the darkness, like the mule stealthily blended into the background silhouettes and the cow hiding behind almost like an unfinished sketch. There are also objects on the edge of the canvas like the basket and the rock – Caravaggio quite literally hasn’t lost his edginess.

            But if you look towards the face of the Madonna, you find an expression of such humble piety and subtle, beautiful divinity that you find it difficult to imagine this was the same painter who previously used a dead prostitute as a model. She still feels human; strewn out on the floor, exhausted like any new mother finds herself, with baby Jesus climbing up her, tiring her, no matter his divine nature. Yet her humanity here is far more Biblical than Italian, far more sublime than profane. Why the change in this stage of life?

St. Francis in Meditation

            An equally dark painting, perhaps from 1607, is St. Francis in Meditation. This was painted before his arrival in Malta, and this is less of a spiritual painting than the Raising of Lazarus, even so, here, the darkness was winning out. The face of St. Francis might be a self-portrait, and if so, it depicts Caravaggio, communing with the saint, drowned in memento mori, contemplating death; not Christ’s, perhaps, but his own. The skull is placed on the very edge of the canvas, a typical MO of Caravaggio’s, and the Bible rests upon it, as if even the word of God leans on death.

            The renowned realism of the artist creates a different, more personal narrative. St. Francis’ wrinkled forehead, his hopeless, disconnected expression, the lazily crossed hands, so bereft of energy, and the way he’s kneeling before the crucifix and Bible in a manner that suggests routine rather than devotion. It seems as though St. Francis is tiring of kneeling, has lost faith in faith, is dejected, beaten and going through the motions. If this truly is a self-portrait, is Caravaggio hinting to us that this was his own state of mind?         

            In these later paintings – there are others of course, like the brilliant Denial of St. Peter among others – Caravaggio, the demi-god of Bacchic excess and tragedy’s favourite plaything, is communing with his own mortality, with the Fate of his soul. During this time, Caravaggio entered a church and when a priest asked him why he didn’t put holy water on his head, he remarked, “this water is for venial sins, my sins are wholly mortal.”

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Henry Lewis says:

    You’ve provided fascinating insights into the later works of one of my favorite painters. And, I agree that St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta is one of Christendom’s greatest architectural gems. Malta, in general, is amazingly rich in historical detail. Do you still live there? If so, you’re very lucky to call it home!


    1. justinfenech says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. Yes I do live here still, I am Maltese through and through and this is home.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:

    justine on my favourite subject – Caravaggio…


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