Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Supper at Emmaus

(A unpublished review for New City)

Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” and other “Caravaggesque” paintings, at the Art Institute of Chicago, through Jan. 31

1600 was a big year for Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), and for the history of European painting, as that young man became famous for a dramatic realism that would develop a style for the counter-Reformation and begin to visualize the world of the street instead of the palace. One year later, he painted the “Supper at Emmaus” which is currently hanging in Gallery 211 at the Art Institute, surrounded by the works of those who followed him in the 17th. Century. And it has to be seen to be believed. Not so much for its fine detail, as for its size, and the way the figures project themselves into the viewer’s space, as it realizes that moment when God, through the Holy Ghost, dramatically entered human history. Which is to say, this is a very effective liturgical painting, and makes almost everything else in the room feel merely picturesque, especially the otherwise excellent painting by his rival, follower, chronicler, and bitter enemy, Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643).

Here's the Baglione
St. Francis

And here's a version
that Caravaggio did
about 5 years earlier

Why is it so effective? Certainly the drawing is important. Caravaggio drew directly on the canvas, unlike so many others who could only make great drawings on paper (Il Guercino, for example, whose “Entombment” hangs on the opposite wall).


And here, in the actual painting, you can feel the careful modulation of tonal values that escaped so many of his followers (especially Bartolomeo Manfredi and Cecco del Caravaggio, whose works now hang on the same wall),



and escape all of the reproductions. (especially those transparencies that visited L.U.M.A. a few years ago) But overall, you just have to credit this tormented young man’s prophetic vision, which seems to have needed the power and beauty of divine grace much more than the rest of us.


Blogger Sir G said...

there is an odd thing about caravaggios -- most have two sources of light, this specially apparent in early works, like the rest on the way to egypt (perhaps one is a kind of earthly light while the other is the spiritual light)

and they are all awesome -- like bach -- and unlike pamuk -- he'd literarlly never erred

one of the few painters i know who went from the licked to the rough texture (as they usually do) without giving the impression of having lost it, or given up, or sold out

the other (later) supper in emmaus is even better (it's in brera)

i especially like the loving way he renders old men -- he must have been close to his grandpa, too

October 28, 2009  
Blogger chris miller said...

Yes! I also like his old men!

But has he "never erred"?

Here's a discussion of that bizarre right hand of the old man on the right.

Why is it the same size as the left hand - even though it is so much further away from the viewer?

(a similar problem as can be seen here in Gentileschi's "Penitent Magdalene")

It's what I would call "Chinese perspective" -- where receding parallel lines stay parallel to infinity -- and it can have the exciting effect of pulling the viewer into the middle of the imaginary space. Though in the Gentileschi, it just seems awkward.

October 28, 2009  
Blogger Sir G said...

well, yes, if you put it that way that right hand is a little big (and the left a little small), but then, well, old sir c, this is a ***painting, isn't it?

i say the man has not erred -- who cares about the relative size of hands??? -- i do not know a single painting by cara v. that simply does not blow me away. while, on the other hand, there are lots of paintings that get the perspective right and still suck all the same.

personally, i am a slave, hopeless, helpless, blithering-fool slave of st peter's martyrdom (in san luigi dei francesi in rome); i used to live about 200 meters away and start each day with a long stare

oh god

October 29, 2009  
Anonymous marly said...

You know, that basket underlines precipitous revelation, doesn't it? Just about to spill Eden's apples and the grapes that were trodden into the blood of Christ...

I also love Caravaggio.

The disciple with the pilgrim shell and the outsize hand really proclaims his total understanding of who and what Christ is in that sudden, distorted image, I think. Christ blesses the bread that is his symbolic body and communion with them, the scales fall from their eyes, and the disciple stretches out his arms in double meaning--acknowledgment of Christ crucified; acknowledgment of Christ reaching out his arms in the gesture of infinity to embrace all humanity.

Grand painting, grand light. And a Christ who seems unfamiliar to us: what genius that is.


Just back from Thailand and Cambodia, where I saw many wondrous and terrible and fascinating things. And much sculpture--a lot in fragments, though.

November 13, 2009  
Anonymous marly said...

P. S. I meant--and may not have made sense there--that if Caravaggio did not distort the size of the hands, the revelation would remain unclear and less powerful.

November 13, 2009  
Blogger chris miller said...

The heads are out of perspective too -- i.e. the near ones are the same size as those in the distance.

Coincidentally, on the train last week, I just met a retired professor of Renaissance art history who also thinks that "Caravaggio made a mistake - it happens to all of us"

But of course -- I disagree.

BTW - Marly is not the first one to feel that this "Christ seems unfamiliar to us"

Looking at the jpg again, I get the feeling that the left side of the painting is only in balance because we expect that seated disciple to immediately leap up out of his chair.

I'll have to check that out when I visit the museum again this weekend.

November 13, 2009  
Blogger Sir G said...

let´s not too make too much of a holy relic out of perspective

November 14, 2009  
Anonymous marly said...

Happy New Year--shall come back once school is back in session and all college applications are done. Sigh.

January 03, 2010  

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