Monday, June 18, 2012

The Power of Painting, Example #1

As Dave and I have both noted in past posts, our Saturday in Rome was an intense, banner day of art viewing. In a single day we were able to see multiple pieces by two of the greatest artists of the 17th C., and one could argue (as Dave demonstrated in his earlier post), two of the greatest artists of all time: Gianlorenzo Bernini and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Our second stop last Saturday was one I had been eagerly anticipating for...well...about 4 years: The church of San Luigi dei Francesi. In my humble opinion this site is home to the most amazing ensemble of Caravaggio works anywhere. These three paintings, all dedicated to St. Matthew and his life, are still to be found in the original chapel for which they were made by Caravaggio in about 1600, namely the Contarelli Chapel.

Above, the facade of San Luigi dei Francesi and below, the Contarelli Chapel.
For me, seeing a work in its original location is often a transporting experience. This is due in no small part to the fact that as an American I was primarily conditioned to see (and expect) art in the sterile environment of the contemporary museum where works are removed from the function, space, light, and even smells (candle wax, old wood) of their original environments. Well-lit and uniformly treated one after another, it's easy to forget and harder to grasp the power these works enshrined in museums originally had on their viewers.

Not surprisingly seeing work in situ, as it's called, is my favorite way to experience art and the Contarelli Chapel of Caravaggio is one of these extra special places where that is still possible.

[Above] The Calling of St. Matthew, arguably Caravaggio's most famous work in the history of art, first came into my consciousness as a child when my artist mother shared her passion for Caravaggio with me by using this painting as "evidence" of his power as a painter. And it certainly is striking in reproduction, as you see it above, particularly for its composition and dramatic lighting.

But in person it is another matter all together and that goes for all three of the works here (and art in general for that matter!). The chapel also includes Matthew composing the Gospel*, above the altar, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, on the right wall of the chapel.

The Calling, in turn, appears on the left wall of the chapel (see the second image from top) as you face the altar and therefore it is the last work revealed by the chapel architecture as you walk down the dimly lit left side aisle of the church to this chapel on the far end. Perhaps that's why it pops off the wall the way it does. Or perhaps it's Caravaggio's understanding of the viewer's perspective and his incorporation of fictive light as if it comes from the window of the chapel itself. Or perhaps it's his often noted (but no less true) gritty realism.

Whatever the case, I found myself moved in much the same way I was when I saw the work for the first time in 1995, when on a hot July day I trudged in from the Roman heat, made my way here and had the unusual experience of seeing the work alone, with no other tourists around. Me and Caravaggio face to face after all those years of seeing him, but not really seeing him. (Those of you who have favorite works of art and/or make art know what I mean.) Needless to say the experience was emotional on a whole host of levels and cemented the chapel as one of my personal favorites forevermore.

This recent Saturday in Rome reminded me again of the power art has over us and no matter how many times I show this work in Art 100, or see it in a book, experiencing the work in the "flesh" jars me out of my feeling of familiarity with the painting. It has a life and immediacy that cannot be captured in photos due to its context, its vitality and its life.

In an image, this is WHY Dave and I travel. Some people are adrenaline junkies, we have an "art fix."

*This is actually the second version Caravaggio painted for this spot. The monks rejected the artist's first vision of Matthew (see below) because they felt it implied Matthew could not write and was therefore an undignified portrayal of the apostle. Interestingly, the work was immediately snatched up on the private art market right after it was rejected. Unfortunately this piece was destroyed (accidentally) during World War II.


  1. I am green with envy of your trip! I know you are loving every moment.

  2. Wonderful images and inspiring writing. The idea of an image viewed in the place where it was meant to be seen is provocative as well. Thanks for posting your thoughts.