The life of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio makes for a good movie. Derek Jarman, for instance, has made one. It makes for a great documentary as well, as Simon Schama has shown. This is because this genius of a painter was more or less insane. He was the sort of person who might punch someone in a bar without warning during an otherwise peaceful night out. We all have had mad friends like that. It’s the sort of person whose violent behavior makes him seem like a super-masculine bad boy with a sensitive side that makes his bruised lip quiver in a lover’s arms at the end of the day.

They usually become tedious when one is out of one’s teenage years, but not Caravaggio. He became a jailbird, a murderer, and a genius. I bet you don’t have friends like that. I certainly don’t. And even if you did none of them could have painted something like the Fortune Teller in their early twenties.

Source: Wikipedia

Caravaggio did, and it is a really clean and effortless genre painting that tells of his technical mastery. The light is soft and pleasant, the young figures dressed in fancy clothes, striking a pose. It’s also about the gaze, that self-satisfied smug look of the guy on the right and the knowing stare of the girl. There’s tons of hormonal activity in the scene as well as the hipster irony of two world-weary posers. Ah, to be young again and unaware of the world’s wonders, to think that everything I don’t understand is stupid anyway. Ah, to be stupid again.

The Fortune Teller is the work of a young man, but Caravaggio’s promising talents did not go unused when he got older, although it’s maddening to think what he might have accomplished had he been a more stable person. About a decade later he painted the Death of the Virgin which, like the Fortune Teller, hangs in the Louvre among other Italian masters.

Source: Wikipedia

This picture from Wikipedia is atrocious. There’s some sort of lighting issue here and a weird smudge on the lower portion that makes it look awful. In real life, it is arresting with its muted colors and sombre atmosphere. The Virgin is old, bloated, grayish and very much dead already. The tint of greenish gray on her skin does not show above, but it’s there. The red cloth overhead is almost menacing and matches the redness of her dress. It’s a proper scene of death as all the mourners are slumped and weeping silently. Heads in hands, faces covered to hide the tears, they convey the arrival of death much better than people crying their eyes out and tearing their clothes. Death here is no surprise. It’s something that even the holiest among us have to face. Death is not like the violent loss of a limb that calls for screams, it is the silent weight those who are left behind must carry. At least that’s what I think I meant when, standing in front of this piece, I wrote “Holy Shit!” in my little notebook.

It is said that Caravaggio got hold of the body of a drowned prostitute, dressed her up in that strange red dress, and painted her as the Virgin. On a badass scale from one to ten that would be about two million. Pretty soon after he had finished it he got into trouble when he killed a man trying to cut off the guy’s testicles. That’s an easy eight or nine. He was an insane piece of shit, but I think the Death of the Virgin more than makes up for it.

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