• Michelangelo Caravaggio

  • Caravaggio best recognized for his representational paintings, combined realistic observation with a dramatic use of lighting, often depicting aspects of the Gospel- many of which were created to fill numerous huge new churches and palazzos being built at that time and for private commissions. He intentionally moved to Rome during his twenties to help fulfill the high demand for religious artwork, thus increasing his potential to build his reputation as a figurative painter.
    Caravaggio’s work was sought after by religious communities because of his naturalist ability to portray images of figures (Christ, Virgin Mary, saints, prophets etc.) in a manner that ordinary individuals could understand, relate to and be inspired by. These paintings were made more beautiful through his use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting), which added drama and importance to the three-dimensional figures in his artwork.

    One of his most admired and copied impressive altarpieces, The Entombment of Christ, (oil on canvas, 120” x 80”) was painted for the chapel of the Pietà in the Chiesa Nuova, church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome- created for the congregation of priests, founded in 1561 by St. Philip Neri. The altarpiece originally commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice in 1601 was completed two years later and is now among the treasures of the Vatican Museum.

  • The Entombment of Christ

  • In, The Entombment of Christ, Caravaggio captured a silent dramatic arrested moment when some of Christ’s followers (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, or possibly Saint John, the Virgin Mary, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene) remove Christ’s body from the cross and pause just before the two men gently lower His body into a cave-tomb. The artist painted this genre composition, using strong saturated color and theatrical use of chiaroscuro (shift of light to dark) to create a visual impact between Christ, the mourners and the viewer.
    This scene painted in the black of night without any background, landscape, or architecture along with its extreme contrasts of light and dark, casts a spotlight effect focusing on the importance of the figures in the foreground of the painting. Caravaggio staged the tightly compact group of five mourners, dressed in 16th century contemporary clothing with Virgin Mary dressed as a nun, on a flat slab thought to be the lid of the tomb, the point of which projects out establishing contact with the viewer who now becomes a participant and one with Christ in the moment. The artist intentionally painted the figural group into a fan-shaped wave pattern to direct the viewer’s eye slowly downward to the dead Christ who lies on the slab of stones – a probable reference to the Gospel of St. John stating the Stone of Unction is where Christ’s body was anointed with oil and wrapped in a linen shroud, and to their symbolic allusion of Christ as the founder of the church.
    Caravaggio created a strong diagonal movement which sweeps through the tightly overlapping group establishing an emotional link between them. He achieved this by compositionally arranging an imaginary arch beginning at the upper right hand of the painting with the extended hands of Mary Cleophas, sister of the Virgin Mary, down through Mary Magdalene’s sagging shoulders, to the partially obscured Virgin Mary who raises her hands to heaven, to the two male figures, to Christ’s face and torso, to the end of His shroud at the bottom of the composition. The arched tautness at the top of the painting becomes quieter as the eye moves from the top to the bottom of the frozen snap shot in time allowing the viewer to sense each of the mourner’s intense emotions and finally come to rest on the image of Christ.
    Caravaggio’s The Entombment scene captured each of the mourner’s sorrow profoundly. Clear visible expressions mark the solemn event as evidenced by: the partially obscured Virgin Mary, portrayed as an elderly nun (possible reference to her solemnity), whose arms arranged in a wide sweeping gesture bows her head in grief; Mary Magdalene, follower of Christ, dried away her tears with a white handkerchief; Mary Cleophas, sister to the Virgin Mary, upraised arms and illuminated face seek out divine guidance; Joseph of Arimathea or St. John’s pain stricken face traced Christ’s stab wound as he lowers the body into the tomb; Nicodemus’s glance with its penetrating anguish established contact the viewer, while challenging any interference in this passionate event. Caravaggio conveyed the feeling of pathos on all the characters faces with the exception of Christ, who no longer feels the agony and turmoil of earthly pain.
    Caravaggio intrinsically embedded elements of allegory and metaphor into this painting: the living mourners verses Christ’s death and the eternity of the tomb; the mourner’s total unrestraint facial and physical expressions of sorrow verses Christ’s absolute peace; the standing mourners verses the lying Christ; the once rich Nicodemus who in this painting appears humbly dressed with troll-like expression and distorted body now totally devoted to the deceased verses the strong, peaceful Christ who represents the poor and the divine. Caravaggio further offered the viewer another perspective into this scene by his placement of the men in the painting (dividing the upper and lower portion of the painting) who according to tradition and custom of their time attended to Christ, while the women watch and mourn. The artist created another barrier between the two worlds by his strategic positioning of Christ in the lower picture plane – reflecting Catholic belief that only having faith can we avoid eternal death (the tomb) and ascend to heaven (mourner’s hands pointing upward). Caravaggio left a final symbolic clue regarding spiritualism- a green plant near Christ’s shroud in the lower left corner. The plant known as Verbascum Thapsus or mullein believed to possess medical properties to ward off evil spirits, represented Christ’s triumph over death.
    Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ painted in the Baroque style exemplifies elements of that period: extreme dramatic lighting, figurative characters with expressive realistic natural features, and diagonal directional movement within the composition. Read as a compact monumental piece of sculpture rather than a painting in which Caravaggio masterfully captured that precise moment when the death and entombment of Christ creates a deafening silence.