Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known around the world as simply Caravaggio, is one of the best known Italian artists of all time. His paintings, which combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting. He is, in fact, considered the father of Baroque painting. Caravaggio is credited with the invention of Tenebrism, a technique characterized by predominantly dark tones and shadows with dramatically contrasting effects of light. Apart from Tenebrism, Caravaggio is known for his depiction of crucial moments and scenes; often featuring violent struggles, torture and death. Caravaggio’s style can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini and Rembrandt. Moreover, such was his influence, that numerous artists in the following generation who followed him came to be known as “Caravaggisti”. Here are the 10 most famous paintings by Caravaggio.
#10 Conversion on the Way to Damascus
Location: Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
Along with the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, this painting was made for the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Caravaggio created two versions of the painting with the first one being rejected. The rejected version is housed in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection of Rome and is known as The Conversion of Saint Paul. Conversion on the Way to Damascus depicts the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of the followers of Christ. Saul is on his way to Damascus to annihilate the Christian community there when he is struck from his horse by a divine thunderbolt. He then sees a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus. This moment of revelation converts Saul from persecutor to an apostle of Jesus known as Saint Paul. Caravaggio depicts the moment when he has fell from his horse and is lying on his back with his eyes closed, almost embracing the vision.
#9 The Taking of Christ
Location: National Gallery of Ireland
This painting depicts the incident known as the Arrest of Jesus in Christianity. The event occurs shortly after the Last Supper when Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested by the temple guards in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Arrest of Jesus ultimately led to his crucifixion. Jesus is the second figure from the left in the painting and to his right is Judas who has just kissed Christ to identify him. Caravaggio has used a strong light-and-dark contrast to give the painting a sense of high drama befitting the event. The Taking of Christ is regarded as a key work of Caravaggio. It has all the features associated with his great works: a dramatic story, chiaroscuro lighting, expressive figures and magnificent surface detail.
#8 Basket of Fruit
Location: Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan
While the Still Life genre existed for a long time, Caravaggio is considered the pioneer of Italian still life painting. He created just a few works in the genre, of which this has become the most famous today. The condition of the fruits in the basket is less than ideal with most of them being worm-eaten and stale. The theme of the artwork is probably the natural decaying of all things. This painting is in stark contrast to another well known work attributed to Caravaggio, Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, which shows ripe fruit with no signs of imperfection. Another notable point in Basket of Fruit is that the basket is at the edge of the picture space, in danger of falling into the space of the viewer. The Basket of Fruit is one of the earliest masterpieces in the genre of still life.
#7 David with the Head of Goliath
Location: Galleria Borghese, Rome
This painting captures the moment when David has slayed the giant Goliath in the famous story from the Old Testament. Caravaggio has depicted himself as the head of Goliath while the identity of David is not known with certainty. Some believe that David is a self-portrait of the artist as a young man. Rather than showing David as jubilant after winning the fight, Caravaggio adds psychological depth to the painting through the expression on David’s face. While some see it as quiet triumph, most believe that the artist shows the hero as pensive and moved by the death of his opponent. The weapon in the hand of David is not his famous sling but the sword of Goliath. David with the Head of Goliath is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of Caravaggio.
#6 Judith Beheading Holofernes
Location: Palazzo Barberini, Rome
Judith Beheading Holofernes is based on a story in the Old Testament. In the story, Holofernes is an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Bethulia, the home city of Judith. Judith, taking advantage of the Assyrian general’s desire for her, is able to enter his tent. After drinking excessively Holofernes passes out and Judith is able to decapitate him thus saving her city. The third character in the painting is Judith’s maid Abra. The mastery of Caravaggio in depicting emotions may be seen through the expressions of the three subjects. Judith’s expression in particular shows a mix of determination and repulsion. Several later artists were deeply influenced by this masterpiece. Most notably, Artemisia Gentileschi created another famous painting of the same subject.
Location: Uffizi, Florence
Bacchus, also known as Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, inebriation, fertility and theater. This painting shows him in his youth with vine leaves in his hair. He is in the process of consuming red wine and fruits. His cheeks are plump and red; and he is half robed. The sensuality of scene is a prominent aspect of the painting and many critics have written about the homoerotic nature of the artwork. Some believe that the model for the painting is Caravaggio’s pupil and lover, Mario Minniti. The homo-eroticism in the work may be the artist’s romantic feelings for his model. Art historian Donald Posner, however, considers that the latent homo-eroticism in the painting was actually alluding to Cardinal Del Monte’s sexuality and his relationships with the young boys who frequented his inner circle.
Location: Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome
The story of Narcissus comes from Greco-Roman mythology. Its most popular version is perhaps from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Narcissus is so beautiful that when he sees his own reflection in a pool of water, he falls in love with himself and stares at his own reflection for the remainder of his life. The character of Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself. Though it is not known with certainty, most scholars accept Narcissus as an original Caravaggio. The artist depicts Narcissus in his youth, leaning over his own reflection in the water and being engrossed by it. He is locked in a circle with his reflection and is surrounded by darkness, heightening the deep melancholy the viewer may experience through it.
Location: Uffizi, Florence
In Greek mythology, Medusa was a ravishingly beautiful woman who was priestess to the goddess Athena. A requirement for being a priestess to Athena was that the woman should be a virgin. Medusa was deeply desired by Poseidon, who went on to rape her on the floor of the temple itself. After discovering this, Athena was filled with rage. Punishing her for losing her purity, Athena transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. She was decapitated by the Greek hero Perseus. The painting was commissioned by Italian diplomat Francesco Maria del Monte as a gift for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It depicts the severed head of Medusa. Caravaggio’s well known combination of realism and violence is apparent in this artwork. Medusa remains one of the most famous paintings of Caravaggio.
#2 Supper at Emmaus
Location: The National Gallery, London
One of the most famous paintings created by Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, depicts the moment when the resurrected Jesus Christ first revealed himself to two of his disciples; most probably Luke and Cleopas; in the town of Emmaus. The painting in fact captures the exact moment when the two apostles realize that they are witnessing an unimaginable miracle. Christ has been shown without a beard and his flowing robes cover any indications of the wounds he suffered during the crucifixion. It was a recurring motive in the works of Caravaggio to show the daily routine being interrupted by the sublime. This work is another example of it as Caravaggio seems to suggest that perhaps a Jesus could enter our daily encounters.
#1 The Calling of St Matthew
Location: San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome
Saint Matthew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Christian tradition, one of the four Evangelists. Matthew was initially a tax collector and Jesus Christ found him sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me”, Jesus told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. This painting depicts the moment at which Jesus inspires Matthew to follow him. Caravaggio’s signature technique of tenebrism, which was marked by the use of violent contrasts of light and dark, may be seen in this masterpiece. The technique helped him to create paintings with high drama and emotional intensity. The Calling of St Matthew was an immediate sensation when it was first displayed and it remains the most famous work by Caravaggio.