Father Barron sends an update from Rome describing his recent visit to the Palazzo Quirinale to view the stunning exhibit of many of Caravaggio's most famous paintings.
"I was privileged yesterday to attend an exhibit of twenty-four carefully chosen Caravaggio masterpieces that are on display at the Quirinale Palazzo in Rome.
In my judgment, Caravaggio is, after Michelangelo, the greatest religious painter in the Western tradition.
Not only is his technique impeccable and his style innovative, but his vision of the paradox of Christian religious experience is so acute.
I speak of paradox because, for Christians, God always manifests himself in the messiness and ambiguity of history and flesh.
Christians—especially of the Catholic variety—don’t think that God is found by escaping the world but precisely by entering into it.
As Fr. Steve pointed out a few weeks ago on this blog
, Caravaggio himself was what we would term today a “dysfunctional” person.
Sexually libertine, probably an addict, certainly a man of tremendous violence, Caravaggio lurched his way through both the back alleys and sophisticated corridors of early seventeenth-century Italy, frequently running afoul of the law and finally finding himself condemned to death.
The upshot of all of this was a deep sympathy for the sinner, the rake, the lost soul, which is evident in almost all of Caravaggio’s great religious paintings.
Though the exhibit at the Quirinale included some of Caravaggio’s most famous pieces—the Road to Emmaus, the Betrayal of Jesus by Judas, the Winged Cupid—my favorite was his depiction of David holding the head of Goliath. The severed head of the giant is rendered with sickening realism. We see his bloody neck, his open but unfocussed dead eyes and his gaping mouth. And the consensus of most art historians is that the dead Goliath is actually a self-portrait of the painter: Caravaggio in all of his confusion, sin, and spiritual dysfunction. But what struck me the most and caused me to muse for about fifteen minutes was the face of David as he held the head of Goliath/Caravaggio. There is certainly disgust and disapproval in the visage of the giant-slayer, but there is so much more. As you stare at those features, you begin to see sorrow and, above all, deep sympathy. Then we recall that David is a great figure of Christ, who was called “the son of David.” Caravaggio is telling us, I think, that Jesus looks at us in our sin with revulsion and disappointment—how could he not, since he is the the incarnation of justice itself?—but that he also looks at us, even in our sin, with an infinite sorrow, infinite sympathy, infinite compassion.
And what good news that is for all of us dysfunctional brothers and sisters of Caravaggio."