The stories behind some of the Italian Baroque master's most famous works
Michelangelo da Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was one of the most influential, and notorious, artists of the Baroque period. A fugitive escaping a death sentence for murder for much of his life, Caravaggio's lasting legacy is that of a pioneer who developed a style that combined dramatic lighting with psychological insight. Here are five of his most famous paintings.
1. 'The Adolescent Bacchus'
Now one of Caravaggio’s most instantly recognizable early works, this painting of a young Bacchus—The Roman god of wine and harvest—was actually forgotten about for two centuries before it was found, unframed, in the storage facilities at the Uffizi in 1916. The young Bacchus has a glazed expression—presumably because he’s already drunk—and the yellowish light in which he’s bathed is suggestive of jaundice, a condition brought on by excessive alcohol consumption.
If you zoom in closely on the carafe of wine to the left of the painting, you might see that Caravaggio has hidden the faintest of self-portraits in the deep red liquid. You might really have to press your face to the screen to see this one!
Caravaggio painted this shield early on in career for his patron the Cardinal Francesco Maria, but it was not attributed to him until 1631, almost forty years after he had produced it. It refers to the mythological tale in which the Gorgon Medusa, who could turn people into stone with her stare, is cunningly defeated by the heroic Perseus. The shield was clearly meant to strike fear into one’s enemies, and Caravaggio's depiction of the beheaded Medusa is startlingly violent and lifelike. More unnerving than the blood or the hair composed of writhing snakes, is the expression of eye-popping shock and pain on Medusa’s face, as if she is completely conscious of her own brutal death.
See how it looks on the shield itself in Museum View:
3. 'The Cardsharps'
Another painting by Caravaggio which seemed to have disappeared over the centuries, only to be re-discovered relatively recently, The Cardsharps was found in a private collection in 1987. Here we see two cheats in the act of swindling their mark, an innocent looking young boy. Although the picture is static, we can clearly follow the drama as it unfolds in a clockwise chain of events: the boy glances at his card, unaware that the man to his right is also looking and sending a sign to his accomplice in the foreground who retrieves the best card to play from his back pocket. Because we’re aware of all that’s going on, we as the viewers almost become complicit in the cheating ourselves.
4. 'The Incredulity of Saint Thomas'
This painting depicts the biblical tale in which the risen Christ convinces a dubious Saint Thomas that he has been resurrected by allowing the latter to touch his crucifixion wounds. We see Christ guide Thomas’ finger into the graphically rendered wound in his torso, and it’s interesting to note that Christ is not adorned with a halo here, as if to emphasize the human suffering he endured. Zooming in we see Saint Thomas furrowing his brow and widening his eyes in astonishment, and the drama of the event is heightened by Caravaggio’s trademark use of chiaroscuro —the heavy contrast of dark and light tones.
5. 'Amor Vincit Omnia (Cupid as Victor)'
The title of this famous painting refers to a line in the Roman poet Virgil’s Eclogues which reads in translation as ‘love conquers all’. What ‘all’ consists of can be seen littered on the floor underneath the mischievously grinning Cupid, the Roman god of love: a lute, violin and manuscript representing the arts; a crown or coronet and armor symbolizing political power; a compass signifying scientific and geographic discovery; and a flower standing for the natural world. Caravaggio’s vividly realistic, un-idealized depiction of the young Cupid (zoom in on his crooked teeth) is made even more uncomfortable by his pose which seems to accentuate his genitals. But elements of paedophilia or homoeroticism that we see as modern viewers are largely anachronistic, as concerns about the sexualization of children were far less pronounced in the 17th century.
The incredible, if uncomfortable, realism of Caravaggio's painting is all the more evident when comparing it to works by his contemporaries. Take a look for yourself in Museum View below: