About fifteen years ago, while on a trip to Rome, Yigal and I ‘discovered’ a painter we had never heard of before, Michaelangelo Merisi, commonly known as Caravaggio. His pictures, which were painted with realistic exactitude and a heightened sense of drama, seemed to burst out of their frames. Many of them were on religious subjects, but instead of the idealized faces and figures of saints and martyrs what we were seeing was real people in real situations.
In the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome we were confronted by the startling, larger than life image of the hindquarters of a horse standing over a prostate figure lying on the ground, the foreshortened torso painted with amazing verisimilitude and bathed in light. This was Caravaggio’s painting of the Conversion on the Way to Damascus, unlike anything on the subject that we had seen before. On the facing wall was a picture of an old man being hoisted up to be crucified upside-down, with the back and bottom of one of the hoisters straining with the effort and seeming almost to project from the canvas. This was Caravaggio’s view of the Crucifixion of St. Peter.
After that we made a point of seeking out pictures by Caravaggio wherever we went. There aren’t too many of them, but they are to be found in most major museums in Italy, as well as in the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, the Hermitage in Leningrad and the Prado in Madrid. When we visited Sicily we were thrilled to find three huge canvases by him there. A few years ago several of Caravaggio’s works were brought together in Rome for a special exhibition to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of his death. The exhibition was mobbed, but Yigal and I managed to get in twice.
After a working life of scientific endeavour, ending with twenty years working in various high-tech enterprises in Israel, Yigal has become immersed in the study of Caravaggio and his work, has given lectures about him in various forums, and is considered to be quite an expert on the subject.
Almost every picture that Caravaggio painted on a religious subject took a completely fresh view that was almost revolutionary. The church was the main patron of the arts in Caravaggio’s time, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, so that was where he was obliged to earn commissions. Some of his pictures were too radical for the religious authorities and were rejected; in some cases Caravaggio produced another version, in others he didn’t (he was a very temperamental chap, and was often involved in fights).
When we visited Malta a couple of years ago we were disappointed to find that the enormous painting of The Beheading of John the Baptist, the largest picture Caravaggio ever painted and the only one he ever signed (he didn’t really need to, no one could emulate his painterly skill and his gift for the dramatic) was hung on a wall at the far end of the cathedral in Valetta, with a barrier keeping viewers at a distance of about twenty feet, apparently because of an attack launched by an insane person several years earlier. We told the owner of the boutique hotel opposite the cathedral where we were staying of our disappointment, and left it at that. But a little while later Yigal received an e-mail from a cathedral official saying that if we ever returned to Malta the barrier and security alarm would be removed so that he could study the painting more closely.
So in another couple of days we’ll be on our way to Malta, to get up close and personal with Caravaggio’s monumental Beheading of John the Baptist.