Caravaggio in Scotland

June 15 2017

Image of Caravaggio in Scotland

Picture: National Gallery or Ireland

The Times asked me to review the latest edition of 'Beyond Caravaggio' at the National Gallery of Scotland, but today's paper was obviously devoted to the terrible and tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, and space was limited. Only part of what I wrote made it into the paper, and so I thought I post the whole piece below. If we were giving out stars, I'd give the show a four out of five.

In 1606 - the year he became a murderer - Caravaggio presented probably his finest work, The Death of the Virgin, to the clergy of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome for approval. The painting had taken years to complete - but it was rejected immediately. The dramatic composition, with Mary seemingly in a state of ecstasy, broke every iconographical rule in the book, and there were rumours the model used had been Caravaggio’s lover, or even a prostitute. 

To the rescue came Rubens, then working in Rome, who urged his patron the Duke of Mantua to buy Caravaggio’s masterpiece. The painting’s fate sums up Caravaggio’s historical reception, as his frequently misunderstood works went in and out of fashion. Until even the 1970s Caravaggios could be impossible to sell. But Caravaggio has always been admired by artists, and the National Gallery of Scotland’s new exhibition, ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, examines his artistic legacy through works by  Honthorst, Ribera and Gentileschi.

What did these artists - today we call them Caravaggisti - so admire in Caravaggio? Above all they were awed by his use of light. The history of art tends to be one of evolution, but Caravaggio was one of the few artists we can genuinely call revolutionary. His lightbulb moment (or more accurately, lamplight moment) was to illuminate his compositions from a single, strong source. This created instant drama and depth through the contrast of dark backgrounds with bright foregrounds - or in art history speak, chiaroscuro. The most impressive painting in the exhibition, Caravaggio’s turbulent Taking of Christ, amply demonstrates the technique. And in case anyone missed the point, the master of light included himself within it; he’s the one holding the lamp.

The exhibition is billed as Scotland’s first on Caravaggio, but that might be stretching it a bit. We’re third in line after Dublin and London, where the exhibition opened last year, and of the six Caravaggios that appeared in London only four (two of them minor works) have made it to Edinburgh. Happily a potentially disappointing display has been rescued by an excellent thematic hang from curator Aidan Weston-Lewis. And in the Royal Scottish Academy, probably the finest suite of galleries in Britain, the exhibition in fact works far better in Edinburgh than London. 

Which is just as well, for until now Scotland has not covered itself in glory when it comes to Caravaggio. In 1920 the trustees of the National Gallery were offered Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ as part of a bequest from a house in East Lothian. But astonishingly they declined the offer. It was later sold at auction in Edinburgh for a modest sum, before ending up in Ireland. It’s good to have it back, if only till September.

Incidentally, I think the decision of the National Gallery in London not to lend Caravaggio's Salome Recieving the Head of John the Baptist is most odd. This exhibition was created and planned by the National Gallery, and their logo is on the catalogue. They invited Dublin and Edinburgh to come into partnership with them, which I presume means sharing some of the costs. To then insist that one of the shows six Caravaggios could only be shown in London seems to me to be not cricket.

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