supper at emmaus

By Jeremy Miles

Hot tempered, arrogant and prodigiously talented, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was one of great religious painters of his age  and when he wasn’t producing masterpieces he was brawling in the streets of Rome.

Despite being revered throughout Europe as the first great realist painter and receiving commissions from powerful patrons, he was  deeply insecure  and quick to take offence. He  carried a sword and ran with a gang. Their motto was Without Hope, Without Fear  and they wasted no time in defending their honour.

As Caravaggio’s fame grew his behaviour became more unstable. One contemporary biographer writing at the turn of 16th and 17th centuries describes him as “Working for two weeks and then sallying forth for two months together with his rapier at his side and his servant boy after him, going from one tennis court to another, always ready to argue or to fight.”  On 28 May 1606 the inevitable happened and Caravaggio killed a man in a row over a disputed line-call. With a price on his head he was forced into exile. 

 This tennis hooligan – the original  prototype of the rebellious tormented artist – would spend the final four years of his life moving relestlessly between Naples, Malta and Sicily before finally dying, apparently of plague, while desperatelyh trying to make it back to Rome and the promise of a  papal pardon. He was just 38-years-old.

In recent years his critics have accused him of  sleeping with his young male assistants and using whores, rent boys  and even dead babies as as models. 

Whatever the truth his final years produced some of the greatest and  most powerful paintings of Caravaggio’s career and now the National Gallery  has mounted an exihibition which traces his final four years.

 On show are 16 major paintings which, although not as well known as those of his Roman years, allow Caravaggio's profound late style to be fully appreciated for the first time.

They are astounding works spectacularly hung and beautifully lit in the darkened basement galleries of the National’s Sainsbury Wing 

The exhibition opens with a flashback, his Supper at Emmaus (pictured above) painted in 1601 five years before his exile. Full of hope it shows the reborn Christ rejuvinated and clean-shaven back from the cross. The same subject painted in 1606 following his flight from Rome follows. Instantly you see Caravaggio's bold, youthful theatricality transformed into the more sober, hushed, and emotionally expressive mood. As his art  matured and became more introspective he probed the emotional and psychological dimensions of his subjects more profoundly and with greater sympathy than ever before. 

Other highlights of the show on loan from major art mujseums all over the world include the monumental Flagellation; Caravaggio’s last mythological painting, the Sleeping Cupid; Portrait of a Knight of Malta; The Annunciation and the Crucifixion of Saint Andrew.  The exhibition will also feature one of Caravaggio's most heartfelt paintings, The Adoration of the Shepherdswhich has never been lent outside Italy before.

Caravaggio revolutionised the art of his time by shunning the prevailing standard of ideal beauty in favour of compelling realism that shocked and moved his audiences. 

In his pictures, old stories seem contemporary because he employed ordinary people as models and captured gestures and expressions that still seem familiar. 

Using dramatic lighting with great expressive force, Caravaggio gave his paintings a truly remarkable sense of actuality that continues to engage and astonish. 

The intense pressure of his final years led Caravaggio to develop a premature 'late' style. Although he was only in his thirties, these works find parallel in the paintings produced by Titian and Rembrandt in old age. 

The exhibition ends with The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, the last picture Caravaggio painted before his early death and perhaps most  disturbing of all, his David with the Head of Goliath in which he included his self-portrait on the face of the freshly severed head.

For a man facing a sentence of death , the still living face, with its open mouth and lolling jaw, is seen by many as not only an admission of defeat and hopelessness but a premonition of eternal damnation.


*Caravaggio: The Final Years  has been organized by the Soprintendenza per il Polo Museale, Naples, in collaboration with the National Gallery, with the aid of a  grant from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. It runs until 22 May 2005.

© Jeremy Miles 2022