Caravaggio – Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Baroque)
Location: Galleria Doria Pamphilj / Artist: Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio
Date: 1597 / Medium: Oil on canvas
Caravaggio: a master of the baroque style whose religious paintings had no match in grit and passion; an intrepid explorer of new artistic styles; and a shameless brawler and sometime murderer whose life and death involved more politics than they did paintbrushes.
Born in Milan, Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio took his name from the town where his family later moved as he was growing up. In 1684 he was apprenticed to a painter named Simone Peterzano, by all accounts a relatively uninspired sort of painter. But Caravaggio was not destined for a life of unexciting painting contracts: after a series of quarrels that involved wounding a police officer, he fled to Rome and took work doing anonymous contract work for another artist . After two years of this, in 1596, he left this work, having made friends with several influential artists in the vicinity, and struck out on his own. After taking on several religious contracts his fortunes began to rise, and those who saw his paintings were extremely impressed by their realism and creativity. He was taking the route he needed to take: anyone looking to gain notice and prosper as an artist could not do without some support by the church (Caravaggio Foundation).
Caravaggio garnered plenty of criticism for the adventurous direction he took with his work, portraying his subjects with hyper-realism and imitating nature rather than using classical works as his primary inspirations, but, “the painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature, and looked on his work as miracles” (Caravaggio Foundation). It was hardly an uphill battle for the artist at this point—he was getting patrons and artistic allies and selling commissions with ease, despite his increasingly risky treatment of even religious subjects. But the interesting parts of the artist’s life had yet to begin.
After killing a man (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not), Caravaggio’s criminal activity finally stepped outside the protective lines that his patrons had drawn around him. He was forced to escape to Naples, where he nonetheless managed to ally himself with the powerful Colonna family and continue his escapades, artistic and otherwise. Despite this, however, he departed after a short period of time to gain the favour of the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta, hoping that this patronage would gain him a pardon for the young man’s death. Predictably, however, he was arrested and summarily kicked off Malta after spending a few years there, and expelled from the Order (of which he had become a part) due to a brawl of epic proportions that involved breaking down doors and seriously wounding a knight. From there he went to Sicily, where he seemed to be descending into seriously bizarre patterns of behaviour, exhibiting paranoid tendencies, his thin skin and tendency towards violence worse than ever. After nearly a year here Caravaggio went back to Naples. In 1610, almost assured of a pardon for his past sins, he took a boat north to Rome (Artble). Later it was reported that he had died of a fever; his body was never found. Caravaggio’s life was short (he died at 38), but the work he left behind was brilliant.
Caravaggio’s style reflected his tempestuous and polarized personality: he made heavy use of chiaroscuro, contrasting bright light with complete darkness as his most common dramatic device. As a baroque artist he was very interested in portraying emotion and natural physical forms, but he even went against the standards of the artistic movement he was operating in by using models drawn directly from nature rather than classical art, and most notably by portraying the bad sides of the figures in his paintings as well. His style is not idealistic in the least: he tends to take the dirtier sides of human nature to use in even his religious paintings. Most famously, perhaps, his “Death of the Virgin Mary” featured a dead prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary. Some of his other paintings were also rejected by the church due to their edgy feel, including the overexposure of the Virgin’s leg in one, the portrayal of Saint Matthew as a bald peasant with a homoerotic young servant boy in another, and the portrayal of a horse’s haunches as more prominent than Saint Peter in yet another (Berger Foundation). Caravaggio was a rabble-rouser in almost every area of his life, and the primitive, dark, often unpleasant-looking scenes that he tends to paint are indicative of the violence and turmoil in his private and public lives.
This dangerous and troubled history of a brilliant man is certainly an odd way to lead up to the painting we are examining: his “Rest on the Flight into Egypt.” Like da Vinci’s portrayal in Virgin of the Rocks, Caravaggio is examining a moment not technically found in the Bible. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are stopped and resting on the way to Egypt, and the legend goes that at this juncture the roots of the trees spew forth water at the infant Jesus’ command, and bend down to give Joseph fruit. The musical angel is Caravaggio’s own addition, but that is hardly the most significant part of the painting.
The style represented here is much more conventional than most of Caravaggio’s works, perhaps because it was painted at a younger age than most of his more well-known pictures, and is much more reserved, quietly naturalistic, and pastoral than any of Caravaggio’s other paintings. The outdoor setting is especially odd for Caravaggio, though as this was his first large-scale painting he may simply have been experimenting. The tones of colour are much softer and more varied than most that Caravaggio would turn towards in the future, and is extremely sophisticated in comparison to Caravaggio’s favoured gritty realism. The only criticisms one might make of this touching scene are the full frontal nudity that the angel is presenting to Joseph. Mary’s tender affection towards Jesus.
The angel in the middle divides the composition effectively, though why exactly he is there for any other purpose but to provide a base for the structure of the painting is something of a mystery: there is no precedent for a violin-playing angel anywhere in the Biblical story or in past artistic symbolism. However, no one can ever accuse Caravaggio of being predictable, so one more mystery added to the pile is hardly a large stumbling block to understanding the painting in the context of Caravaggio’s own style and in Baroque as a larger artistic movement. The symbolism of having Joseph hold the music is quite possibly Caravaggio’s tribute to the oft-overlooked saint, acknowledging his part in the Biblical narrative as not necessarily the maker of the music, but at least as an instrument in its being made.
Though by his actions we can certainly not judge him to be a religious man, one cannot deny that Caravaggio was behind some of the most moving faith-based masterpieces of his day. Painting for the church was one of the only avenues to success, of course, and even Caravaggio’s rebellious spirit recognized this, and even in his religious works we can see his quiet resistance to the norms that are his trademark in almost every aspect, thematic and stylistic, of his career. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt is an odd departure, or perhaps simply a slow beginning, to his typical style, but has a pastoral beauty all of its own, occupying a special place in Caravaggio’s canon.
“Caravaggio.” Artble: The Home of Passionate Art Lovers. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <http://www.artble.com/artists/caravaggio>.