Research & Painter Review – Caravaggio

This post started out being a painting review of The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio but ended out being a wider ranging research piece on Caravaggio which could be used as preparation for assignment 3.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 - 1610 The Supper at Emmaus 1601 Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839 NG172
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839

I saw this painting in my Gallery Visit (Room 32) and made very brief notes in that post (here). I didn’t really understand what I was looking at and although I’ve learnt a lot about 17th century art since then and seen references to Caravaggio (and this painting) in my reading, it could do with a closer look. Being so influential an artist I wanted to learn more about him specifically (and use him as one of the artists in the 500 word analysis in Assignment 3).

The first place to start in understanding this painting is the story behind is. Who is Emmaus and why do these guys with Jesus look so surprised?

On the day of the resurrection two of Christ’s disciples were going to a town called Emmaus.

While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” (Luke 24:15-24)

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24: 28-31)

So Caravaggio’s picture starts to make sense. This is the two disciples just discovering that they are sitting with a recently risen Christ as he blesses the bread. The man serving the table has not removed his hat, having no idea who this is (because he wasn’t at the last supper) but presumably would freak out when Chris just disappears (since he isn’t in the bible account he’s probably just been added as artifice to balance out the composition and the various expressions on the faces of the figures, “His impassiveness is a foil to the disciples’ bewilderment” (De Rynck, 2009)).

Caravaggio has broken with tradition here (as he did in many of his paintings) and represented the scene in a contemporary setting. The background is dark and vague on any details of the setting, the lighting is dramatic so the attention is focused on the scene. The disciple with his arms out (as though talking of the crucifixion) extends into the viewers space to draw us into the scene, hence the drastic foreshortening (I noted it as strange perspective on my gallery visit). Also, the shell on his coat is a scallop, a pilgrims emblem of Santiago de Compostela (named after St James). The fruit basket harkens back to Caravaggio’s still life painting days, critics have pointed out that pomegranates, grapes and figs are summery fruits so are out of place at Easter but apparently over ripened fruit (apples and decaying figs) stand for original sin, grapes (which make wine) and pomegranates are conventional symbols of the resurrection. This fruit hangs over the edge of the table also into our space begging to be pushed back on.

“The disciples look like country bumpkins on a pilgrimage.” (De Rynck, 2009)

Caravaggio painted another Christ resurrection story, one of Doubting Thomas, in 1603 called the Incredulity of Thomas. This one is smaller at only 107x146cm. Thomas is often depicted as a young man (Christ’s twin according to one of the legends but not one I heard in primary school), not so in this painting though. He has expressed doubt about Christ’s resurrection because he hasn’t seen it with his own eyes so Christ is building his finger into the spear wound he received on the Cross. The painting also includes Peter and John, also looking on with intense concentration and undisguised curiosity. Again, there is nothing extraneous to distract attention from the main scene. The figures heads are all clustered together in the centre of the composition but its the finger that gets your eyes attention making you want to lean into the space with them to see it.

He says “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” John 20:25 which reflects the humanist mood of the times where empirical knowledge is the key to truth.

Incredulity of saint thomas,1603. Canvas 107x146 cm, Neues Palais, Potsdam.
Incredulity of saint thomas,1603. Canvas 107×146 cm, Neues Palais, Potsdam.

“Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen and have believed” (John 20:29

As I noted in my gallery visit, all the reproductions of this painting seem a lot more gloomy than the original.

The Supper at Emmaus 1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, nAtional Gallery, London
The Supper at Emmaus
1601, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, National Gallery, London

You see it hangs next to another of Caravaggio’s works, Boy bitten by a Lizard (about 1594-5) which is an eariler work from when he’d just arrived in Rome as a nobody.


His short life story is extremely interesting and you can see how his art develops over the course of his career. The few primary sources about his life are mainly police/court reports and contemporary biographers writings. He is known to get into lots of trouble (hence the documented police reports) and sounds like a very volatile individual. His early training was a four year apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano (in Milan). He was originally from a town called Caravaggio (hence his name, his given name was Michelangelo Merisi). When he arrived in Rome he had nothing and he painted still lives and heads of people to sell in the street which was good training for his later years where he painted from live models which was not the custom in those days. You can see that the figures in The Supper at Emmaus are much more naturally proportioned than the Boy (with the lizard). Some art critics have suggested there is homoerotic undertones in this work, some think it is just a study of drama, the reaction of the boy, some others think it is an allegory on the pain of love (because the still life includes symbols of love).

The Cardsharps - Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) Italian (1571–1610) 16th century c. 1595 Oil on canvas 37 1/16 x 51 9/16 in. (94.2 x 130.9 cm) AP 1987.06
The Cardsharps – Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)
Italian (1571–1610) 16th century
c. 1595, Oil on canvas
37 1/16 x 51 9/16 in. (94.2 x 130.9 cm), AP 1987.06

His work The Cardsharps, 1595, caught the eye of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte who offed him lodgings in his palazzo became his patron, and for whom he painted boy with lizard amongst others. This raised his profile in elite circles and he ended up having the opportunity to do his first public works for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Rome in those days was the artistic center of Italy, artists came from all over Europeto see Classical buildings and famous works of art. He caused a bit of a sensation with his new style and became very famous (his fame spread across Europe) but it seemed that it went to his head and he continued to get into trouble with the police.

According to one of his biographers: ”after a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with his sword at his side and with a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or argument, with the result that it is most awkward to get along with him”. (The sword was illegal – as with guns today, one had to have licence to carry arms.) Caravaggio was arrested repeatedly for, among other things, slashing the cloak of an adversary, throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, scarring a guard, and abusing the police. (National Gallery, 2016a)

In 1606 it all came to a head and he killed a man in an argument, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and had to flee Rome. He spent a short time in Naples then moved to Malta to join the order of the Knights of Malta in return for painting Beheading of St John the Baptist. He was holding out for a Pulpal pardon so he could return to Rome and induction into the order secured him high social standing. Unfortunately he got into trouble again, fighting with another knight, and got arrested. He escaped prison and went to Sicily. Eventually he did get his pardon so could return to Rome.

He loaded his belongings onto a ship but, for some unknown reason, was then arrested and had to buy his way out of jail. By the time he was released, the ship and all his possessions had sailed without him. As he made his way along the coast he fell ill, perhaps with malaria, and a few days later, alone and feverish, he died. (National Gallery, 2016a)

Biographers and news reports seem to disagree about exactly what killed him at aged 39. This report from the BBC suggests that researchers think he died of sunstroke while weakened by syphilis. On the same day in 2010, this article from the Guardian reports that they think he died of lead posioning from the paints! However they do also mention sunstroke.

Style & Technique

He is famous for the naturalism in his paintings (which wasn’t usual at the time) and for his use of light and dark – chiaroscuro. His religious works are lit dramatically by divine light and his saints look like ordinary people in ordinary contemporary settings (complete with dirty fingernails), the naturalism completely replacing the usual religious symbolism to such an extent prompting one observer to suggest that his Conversion of St. Paul looked like an accident in a blacksmiths shop. He used live models of local people which was also a new way of doing things, to draw from nature.

In between fights he found time to astound his contemporaries with his shocking realism and use of light and shade – chiaroscuro – although he won no favours with religious authorities in Rome when he reportedly used a famous prostitute as a model for the madonna. (The Guardian, 2010)

As a technique he painted directly on the canvas and no preparation drawings or sketches were found. Some researchers even suggest that evidence points to him using camera obscura techniques and chemicals to burn an initial image onto his canvas and sketch directly onto it with white lead paint and luminous barium sulphate in the dark! Its actually quite amazing.

I found this video from the National Gallery really interesting:

A recording of the National Gallery Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings 1600-1800, Letizia Treves, speaking about Caravaggio at a lunchtime talk.



BBC news. (2010) Church bones ‘belong to Caravaggio’, researchers say At:
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

BibleHub. (2016) Luke 24 At:
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

De Rynck, P. (2009) Understanding Paintings: Bible Stories and Classical Myths in Art. Thames & Hudson

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Jones, J. (2002) ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio (1595-1600)’ In: The Guardian [online] At:
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

Kimbell Art Museum. (2016) The Cardsharps At:
(Accessed on 17 Aug 16)

National Gallery. (2016a) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio At:
(Accessed on 14 Aug 16)

National Gallery. (2016b) Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – The Supper at Emmaus At:
(Accessed on 14 Auguest 16)

National Gallery, YouTube. (2016) Caravaggio | You choose | The National Gallery, London At:
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Guardian. (2009) Was Caravaggio the first photographer? At:
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Guardian. (2010) The mystery of Caravaggio’s death solved at last – painting killed him At:
(Accessed on 18 Aug 16)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. (2001) Luke 24. Good News Publishers.


3 thoughts on “Research & Painter Review – Caravaggio”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s