Shane wrote this article for Art Confidential Magazine in February 2022 and now is a regular contributor. We thought to share it with his friends and collectors.
|MERCY THROUGH THE DARKNESS|
CARAVAGGIO’S TIMELESS WORK OF CHIAOSCURO
|Written by Shane Guffogg, and Photographs by Shane Guffogg|
|I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Naples, Italy, for a museum exhibition titled, Inspirational, The Influence of Place, curated by Cynthia Penna at the Reggia di Portici museum. My paintings titled, The Bay of Naples 1 and 2, were both featured in the exhibition. While in Naples, I was taken to the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia to see a painting by Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy (1607). The church functions more as a museum now and houses many great works of art, including two rooms of contemporary art that were inspired by Caravaggio’s painting. When I think of Italian renaissance art, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are the first artists to come to mind, but there is a distinct difference between these two artists and Caravaggio — Leonardo and Michelangelo painted idealized versions of people and the archetypes they represent. Their works are part of our eternal subconscious, hovering like memories of dreams. Caravaggio, on the other hand, painted people that he knew and posed them as historic figures, turning ancient myths and biblical stories into an actual moment, captured in paint. Caravaggio also pushed the use of chiaroscuro to its limit; the background of his paintings is a dense, seemingly, impenetrable brown. The people, and objects push through the darkness into a single light source, as if they have stepped past an invisible threshold that exists between two worlds. The title of the painting references the seven acts of mercy from the biblical book of Matthew. These acts are to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned or ransom the captive, and to bury the dead. Originally Caravaggio was going to make one painting for each act, seven total, but instead, he chose to combine them all into a single panel, which is 12 feet, 6 inches tall, and 8 feet, 6 inches wide. When the painting was finished, it was hung in its current place of honor. And according to the director of the museum I spoke with, it has never been moved.|
The painting is glorious, and surreal, transcending the origins of the biblical story, as Caravaggio guides us through this compressed, now singular moment. In the top left corner is a twisted, beautifully painted gray fabric that appears to be a means for traveling between the heavenly, and earthly realms, as the cloth leads us to two angels, and above them, a woman and child. The angel on the left appears to be falling as he stretches out his arms, as if bracing for the looming impact of becoming flesh. The angel on the right has caught him just in time. Their entry and near fall into our earthly realm, creates a gush of air that moves the flame from the candle to the right. The flame of the candle divides the painting between the upper and lower worlds, with the falling angel’s hand reaching down just past the tip of the flame. What could be the purpose for these angels to descend into the physical world? Have they come to guide these mortals and convey the difference between right and wrong, made more potent by Caravaggio’s dramatic use of light and dark? The actual light source that Caravaggio uses to illuminate this moment is coming from the upper left side, some- where beyond the painting. It is a single spotlight meant to illuminate ideas that only he sees. The wings of the angel cast a shadow on the wall to the right. This dark, foreboding obelisk divides the picture into thirds;
“Caravaggio is the storyteller, creating a cinematic moment that would rival any Hollywood blockbuster movie.”
Why would the imaginary wings of an angel cast shadows? Why not! Caravaggio is the storyteller, creating a cinematic moment that would rival any Hollywood blockbuster movie. Our eyes naturally follow the outstretched hands and wings, which then lead us to folds of cloth that descend like a mountain stream finding its way to the river. These perfectly rendered studies of light and dark guides us to the scene of a woman breastfeeding an imprisoned elderly man. Follow the cloth from the elderly man down, and a V shape is formed with a gray cloth that leads up to a pair of feet; a dead person who is being taken to be buried just beyond the wall.
“What could be the purpose for these angels to descend into the physical world?”
The drapery under the feet descends like a waterfall, leading us down to the calf of a well-dressed man and the foot of another man who is propping himself up with one hand on the ground. He is turned away from us, exposing his flesh, painted with hints of a green, gray, and translucent flesh tones, transcribing through paint, the thin flesh of his malnourished body. He is exposed, weak and vulnerable. His right hand is clutching a venetian red cloak that is being offered by the well-dressed, younger man standing over him. At the base of that cloth, is another foot and if we look closely, we see the profile of a person just over the left shoulder of the man on the ground, their hands clasped with their profile buried deep in the shadows, begging.
As our eyes move up into the group of men who are nicely dressed in clothing from the era of the late 16th century announcing their wealth and status in society. The man on the left is pointing to something behind him; the imaginary light source that Caravaggio has employed to bring light out from the dark, thus allowing us to see. And just behind him, standing a foot taller is a man dressed in a simple cloth, draped over one shoulder. He is from a different time and place, somehow transported into Caravaggio’s world. It is written that this man is Samson, holding the jawbone of an ass, giving water to the thirsty. It is not easy to see, as it is cloaked in the shadows of that impenetrable brown, but he too looks towards the light that signifies spiritual redemption.
Caravaggio is revealing his thoughts and possibly his beliefs, juxtaposing time and place with the mysteries of the invisible forces that guide us through our lives.
As an artist, and more specifically a painter living in the 21st century, Caravaggio is someone I not only look at but learn from. His need to challenge the idea of what a painting could be set the stage for where we are now. It took a lot of courage to paint what he saw versus an idea of a narrative that he was being commissioned to do. Making art is not something a person does; it is a way of life. Having the ability and willingness to dip your toes into what I like to call the pond of the universe, always has the potential of creating an emotional roller coaster ride that comes with bearing one’s soul. A certain temperament and a willingness to share is required. When I first began painting, I would always get nervous before I walked up to the canvas. The blank void was daunting and at times even crippling. It takes time to overcome the paralyzing feelings of being vulnerable. But that is what artists do. When I stood in front of this great masterpiece, I was humbled and inspired. Artists are magicians, who create new ways for all of us to see and contemplate what is around us. I think it’s fair to say that from time to time we have all felt those mysterious moments that defy the reason that Caravaggio captured for us to witness. This painting perfectly falls under the category of the small but powerful three-letter word: ART.