Caravaggio’s Mistakes!

For a closer look, click on the images and you will be taken to a bigger version of them so that you can see the detail.

Emmaus Supper

Everyone I know likes to oo and ahh over every work of Caravaggio. He is the GRRRRREAT MAAAASTER! OK, he is wonderful BUT I started to notice a problem he was having and I brought it up much to the ire of my buddies. He had a devil of a time with foreshortening. I first noticed this problem in his painting The Dinner At Emmaus.

I love this painting, the daring way Caravaggio places the man on the right (the disciple Cleopas) who stretches out his arms in astonishment like an umpire calling “safe!”. Jesus is so calm, looks like He is making his point effortlessly in the face of such bold denial. The bravado of the perspective is innovative and a wonder BUT it’s not totally believable. Take a look at the size of the right and left hand of Cleopas and compare them to the size of his head. The rule of thumb in art is that a hand is approximately the length of a face. Both the front and the far hand are the same size and the one furthest away should be considerably smaller than the one in front. It isn’t, and so that is a problem. As great a work of art as this is, I can’t look at it without thinking, “…if only Caravaggio had fixed that before he finished it.” It doesn’t have to be perfect, just believable.

OK, I will admit that is sort of a prissy observation, the difference isn’t so great that you would stop everything you are doing and write an essay about it (like prissy art historian wannabes {like me} do) BUT I ran across an egregious example of Caravaggio’s sloppy perspective and this one is undeniable (actually I was almost stoned and run out of town for bringing it up, by art expert wannabes BUT undaunted I asserted they were WRONG and that settled it, as it always does*).

stlucyThe Burial of St. Lucy resides in Syracusa in Sicily. It is a large and prized work by Caravaggio, done whilst beleaguered and running for his life after he was expelled from The Knights of Malta and the island of Malta itself. He needed money and having found shelter and a patron on Sicily, he was commissioned to paint the scene after the martyrdom of one of Sicily’s most popular saints.

The composition is daring (again) the gravediggers are given the largest and closest spot to the viewer and you sort of have to hunt for the protagonist of the piece. She is lying on the ground, dead, with her eyes cut out as part of her torture but the gore is not apparent.

Looking at this painting, I got the feeling that each of the figures existed in its own plane, and not as part of a continuing view in perspective, as we do in real life. It is as if none of the figures were really posed together, just each one separately.

More disturbing was the right arm of St. Lucy. It looks like a doll’s arm! As if she had an arm which was about a foot long, much too short for an average human being. Her hand is much smaller than her face (remember the rule of thumb about hands and faces I told you before?). That isn’t the way proper perspective works. The hand should be much larger if it is closer to us, and at least as large as her face. Even if her hand is curled, it certainly isn’t the proper size. And so again Caravaggio blows it with hand/arm foreshortening. This time, it’s a huge error and hard to escape unless you are in profound denial.

I think the big problem Caravaggio faced was that he was rushed and disturbed when he painted this picture. The jig was just about up for him and he was hunted and/or cast out of just about every place he had been welcomed. That had to take a psychological toll on him. Also, I just don’t think he understood perspective and if you notice, almost all of his paintings avoid having to deal with depth in the painting. Backgrounds are black, there is never a landscape in the distance, no one is way far away.

In the Burial of St. Lucy, there is one plane in the foreground with the gravediggers in it, and one in the background where the crowd and the downed saint exist almost lined up against a wall.

Mighty peculiar, but undeniable.

*Actually, it just made them huffier but they forgave me later; they said it was because they liked me BUT I know that it was because I was right.

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Cityblis

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