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The story of painting is filled with all sorts of interesting and diverse figures from near saints to authentic rascals and rapscallions. Of course saints are nice, but not nearly as interesting as the rapscallions are. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio falls into the latter category. Born in 1571, Caravaggio very nearly invented Baroque painting with his masterful use of chiaroscuro (high contrast modelling of figures for dramatic three-dimensional illusions). His work is nothing if not powerful in its devastating, visual impact.

Setting aside from his scandalous private life and his white-hot temper, Caravaggio's work might well have been sweeping enough in its naturalness and "newness" to avoid much of the controversy and criticism that dogged his every artistic effort, except for the fact that he often worked for the church. Then, as now, the church was a temple of conservative thought, especially during the counter-reformation. This included doctrine and dogma of course but also matters of art as well.

About 1597, Caravaggio received a commission for several religious paintings to decorate the Contarelli Chapel. Among these were The Martyrdom of St Matthew , The Conversion of St. Paul , and most controversial of all, the final one, The Death of the Virgin completed in 1506. Caravaggio's brand of "naturalness" demanded the use of unsanitised, peasant, dirt-on-their-feet models, in no way resembling the idealised figures of Raphael or Caravaggio's main rival at the time, Annibale Carracci. In The Death of the Virgin , the figure of the Virgin was derived from the drowned body of a prostitute (for that bona fide "dead" look, no doubt). Predictably, the word "blasphemy" came to mind as word of this sacrilege reached the ears of church figures.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
1 February 1998


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