Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (usually just called Caravaggio) was always hiding. He left his family home at age 13, an orphan hiding from sorrow. At 21 he wounded a police officer and fled his hometown of Milan, hiding from the law. In his twenties and early thirties he spent most of his time skulking in Rome’s alleyways, avoiding creditors and enemies. He died a fugitive at age 38, probably a victim of mob retaliation: three years earlier, he had killed a man with powerful connections during a wine-fueled brawl.
Caravaggio is perennially one of my students’ favorite artists. Despite his fleeting and itinerant life, he has staying power. This isn’t because of his biography, though that helps. (A lot of folks go for that tortured bad-boy type.) No – it’s really because of his art. Something about Caravaggio’s paintings is immediately gripping and relatable, even though his figures are wearing puffy silk pants and feathered hats. A cunning concealer himself, he knew how to showcase those foibles of human nature we try to hide.
The little embarrassments Caravaggio put under the spotlight (literally), ran from needling to scandalous. On the benign side, Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto showed the Virgin Mary with bare, dirty feet.1 This was distasteful, but hardly defamatory. A bit more troubling was his treatment of Judith Beheading Holofernes:2 in Caravaggio’s version of this apocryphal story, the seductive Judith is modeled on a famous prostitute, and her facial expression is prissy and bored. Caravaggio’s first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel (showing the evangelist writing his gospel) portrayed a squint-eyed peasant befuddled by supernatural intervention.3 (Naturally, Caravaggio was commanded to do it over.) But the artist’s cheekiest painting is probably hisDavid and Goliath, now at the Borghese Gallery.4 Here, Caravaggio has painted his own face onto Goliath’s gaping, decapitated head. “We all of us are Goliaths,” the artist seems to say, “held by the hair and dripping blood, slain by pride even as we speak.”
Caravaggio is considered the father of tenebrism, or “dark painting.” All of his figures seem to emerge from an inky blackness, their pale limbs and unguarded faces illuminated by a single, harsh light. Their flaws shimmer like the shells of beetles scurrying from upturned rocks, wrenching tiny legs from dark soil. Sometimes they grin with wormish defiance, pale heads lolling. Look at his Boy with a Basket of Fruit.5 Was there every a saucier, more languorous look in the history of Western art? The fruit is covering for something, one can tell. It’s a compensation and an insult – a trifle offered to make up for something terrible, something big. What has this young man done? He’ll do it again.
But Caravaggio, as a general rule, doesn’t put spotlights on Christ. Sometimes quite the opposite. If this brash young artist reveled (both in work and in play) in calling people out – in exposing primness and hypocrisy – he couldn’t find much to expose about Christ. He didn’t really know what to do with this man who had nothing to hide, and whose most private thoughts could bear the brightest scrutiny. So he did what we’d least expect: he put Christ in shadow. He didn’t expose at all, when it came to Jesus. Instead, he hid.
Maybe it was hard to know how to paint a perfect man. Or maybe goodness was mystery to him. Or maybe true virtue, Caravaggio the swaggerer knew, was a quality that unfurled in secret, indifferent to the world’s judgment. Caravaggio himself couldn’t pursue a quiet, secret goodness. His orphaned child-ego was too hungry for recognition, even antagonism – any kind of attention. But he could give credit where credit was due.
Thus in The Calling of St. Matthew, in Rome’s church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Jesus is almost completely invisible.6 His body is blocked by that of the incredulous St. Peter (“you want that one to be your disciple?”). His head is swathed in blackest shadow. His pointing hand just barely emerges from the raking light of a window at late afternoon. Similarly, in The Taking of Christ, his body is almost covered both by a kissing Judas and a brutal, armored soldier.7 Jesus isn’t robed in shadow in every Caravaggio painting; in The Flagellation, his pale skin is front-and-center and gleaming. But he’s always a figure of mystery.8 In the same Flagellation, the bright Christ’s head sags, his face unreadable. In The Incredulity of St. Thomas his face is also lowered and obscure.9 This man who had nothing to hide is hidden so that, in mystery, he can encompass multitudes, like the night sky.
What would Caravaggio see in us? Where would he shine the spotlight of his brush? What quiet hypocrisy would he suss out, reveling in its exposure? What sneaking inauthenticity would he reveal? What performative japing or posturing would he recognize (it takes one to know one!) – in search of approval, reward, notoriety? Or would he peer and search in vain, finding only the mystery of a goodness offered in secret to God?
The academic vocation is one of posturing and performance. It celebrates races after brass rings, it encourages self-promotion, it stokes pride, it expects smugness. It raises curiosity to the level of a virtue, even when that curiosity is nakedly motivated by a will to power. It is a moral minefield. So may we, after Caravaggio’s Christ, learn corrective habits of obscurity. May we take the contents of our bowing heads – tipping them as if decanting choicest wine – and pour them in darkness before a waiting God. Take the firstfruits, O my Father, not only of wealth and time and strength but of my very thought. Remake me as a creature of obscurity who waits on You to shine the light.