I went to Hampton Court Palace to see the Cumberland Art Gallery – a newly restored suite of rooms housing an inspiring collection of masterpieces by artists – including what may be Caravaggio’s earliest surviving painting, Rembrandt’s self-portrait aged 36 and portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger.
St John’s School in Leatherhead opened its doors last Thursday to host a guest lecture by the world-renowned art critic, historian and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon.
Past St John’s pupils gathered with current students in the school chapel to hear the lecture on Caravaggio and his relationship with Christianity in his art.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s talk ‘Whose Christ is it Anyway?’ explored Caravaggio’s unruly and indeed obscure background; in fact there are few concrete biographic details, and some of the most illuminating information about him can be found in criminal records of the time. He famously killed a man and was regularly in fights. His artistic technique mirrored his shadowy life, as Andrew Graham-Dixon observed that: ‘Light and shadows are key to his work and he himself was like a living chiaroscuro.’ He skilfully played with light on his canvas while dodging the spotlight in life, as he purportedly wore black and had his hair untidy to aid his camouflage!
Caravaggio lost most of his family to the bubonic plague when he was young. The Renaissance was a time of great uncertainty over what happened in the afterlife, so the present-day tensions only heightened those concerns. Graham-Dixon explained that Caravaggio often captured that very doubt in his paintings. Also, in a similar way, Caravaggio’s treatment of miracles is particularly interesting, paradoxical even, marked in a step away from the ‘fanfare’ announcement of a miracle taking place. The audience was told that: ‘Miracles are subtle in Caravaggio’s paintings. The Supper at Emmaus shows those who see the miracle, and those who don’t.’
Caravaggio frequently revisited the dramatic physicality of death in his paintings. Andrew Graham-Dixon told the audience that we can learn through the x-ray of Judith Beheading Holofernes that Caravaggio repositioned the head of one of his subjects to depict the most dramatic and bloody angle; and that Hollywood director Martin Scorsese had remarked to him that it was Caravaggio who had taught him ‘How hard it is to kill a man!’ – the similarities of the difficulty involved in showing the physical elements of death on screen and in art.
I thoroughly enjoyed the informative lecture.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book ‘Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane’ published by Penguin. RRP £12.99