London’s National Gallery Presents a History of Violence as Painted By Caravaggio |

London’s National Gallery Presents a History of Violence as Painted By Caravaggio

Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), famed for his use of chiaroscuro to create vivid emotional intensity, painted depictions of heroine and anti-hero in near succession. One celebrated a self-sacrificing female hero of Christian myth, while the other exposed a self-serving villainess—holding a head, no less.

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“The Last Caravaggio,” a new exhibition at the National Gallery in London, pairs these final mythological paintings in a striking storytelling feat about physical death and psychic revelation. On loan from the Gallerie d’Italia, Naples, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1610), is on display alongside the gallery’s prized own Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10).

“The National Gallery is exceptionally strong in its holdings of works by Caravaggio,” says Dr. Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, curator of the exhibition, in a statement. “With the generous loan of Martyrdom, visitors will be able to engage with late Caravaggio as we present this final painting to the public in London for the first time in a generation.”

Martyrdom is one rare piece to exhibit, especially given it was only authenticated as a genuine Caravaggio in 1980. The painting sits alongside Salome in a single quiet room at the gallery but is already attracting frenzied crowds to its station.

A handful of fragile historical documents feature alongside it, including a letter substantiating it as Caravaggio’s own posthumous painting. Dating from 1610, the letter was sent to his patron, Marco Antonio Doria, and confirms the final stages of Martyrdom’s commission.

A page from an old handwritten manuscript
Letter from Lanfranco Massa to Marco Antonio Doria. © Archivio di Stato di Napoli

At a time when other Renaissance painters were going grand—visualizing public spectacle and social disruption—Caravaggio was preoccupied with subtle emotion. He sought out the unexamined human drama found in Christianity’s greatest stories, all ripe for reckoning on the canvas. Death and its aftershocks also remained a constant concern for him, a throughline across the Italian painter’s last pieces including David with the Head of Goliath (either 1604 or 1609-10) and Martyrdom.

“Deeply affecting and tragic in tone, Caravaggio’s last picture [Martyrdom] seems to reflect the artist’s troubled and anxious mental state as he prepared to leave Naples and return to Rome,” says National Gallery Director Dr. Gabriele Finaldi in a statement. The painting was started at a troubling time for the artist, namely because he had been attacked outside a Naples inn and was left with a horribly disfigured face. The hidden figure lurking behind Ursula—seemingly paralyzed by the sight of the arrow striking the saint’s torso—is said to be the artist himself.

Much like the fact there are two singular artworks here, the career of Caravaggio is divided into two key phases: an early period (1592-99), when he studied the examples of “High Renaissance,” an aesthetic characterized by aspirational religious imagery; then, his final years, where he embraced bold realism and abandoned most contemporary rules for art (such as public scenery). All in a short life that ended at just 38.

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The hype and crowds for the showing are justified, not only because these 17th-century religious artworks are so highly prized—by Christians and pagans alike. There have been two major thefts of Caravaggios, including one work that has never been recovered since: Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1600). (Rumor has it that the Italian mafia stole it.) Caravaggio is also having a wider cultural moment, thanks not only to this blockbuster exhibition but also to renewed interest in his art owing to The Seven Acts of Mercy (1607) appearing on Netflix’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Unlike others, Caravaggio painted his canvases from real-life stagings rather than from pre-made drawings. It was a trick that attracted skepticism from patrons and peers alike. Still, in Papal circles, Caravaggio’s highly realistic output was lauded and led to numerous commissions, including other acclaimed paintings depicting self-sacrifice such as The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-60). Martyrdom, a tragic but freeing end for many hallowed Christian figures, was embraced by Caravaggio who was keen to show the higher spiritual liberation the act could seemingly achieve.

Martyrdom enshrines the untimely end of Ursula, an early Christian princess who took 11,000—or 11, depending on which account you accept—virgins to Rome to convert pagan royals to her spiritual teachings. The virginal followers were all quickly slaughtered on arrival by the brutalizing Huns. Ursula was briefly spared her life by the leader in exchange for her fidelity. God, however, was to be Ursula’s only companion in life and she rebuffed the leader’s request, who then angrily pierced her torso with an arrow. Such a fatality is sensationally captured by Caravaggio who honors this haunting moment of death with climatic force.

Elsewhere, heads often roll in Caravaggio’s oeuvre, including in Salome. Salome, one of history’s rare villainesses, was another early Christian royal known for her role in helping behead John the Baptist. After beguiling royal figures with her dancing, Salome asked for John the Baptist’s severed testa on a platter.

Caravaggio restages one of Christian art’s most fabulous religious episodes in Salome but truly elevates the private emotions the moment elicited with his trademark techniques. His chiaroscuro heightens the dramatic internal emotions enveloping Salome and her elderly handmaiden, as grief consumes the loyal servant while a regretful ambivalence takes hold of our princess (who chooses not to even touch the plate).

A painting of several figures in front of a dark background; one is holding a severed head by the hair over a platter held by another
Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist (about 1609-10). © The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery argues that these Caravaggio pieces allow audiences to reckon with the artist’s penchant for violence. “The exhibition is an opportunity to explore Caravaggio’s late paintings, the representation of violence in his work, and to reflect on violence in our own times,” a press release reads. There is a grim cruelty depicted in each painting—an unexpected murder and a vengeful beheading—but a deeper meaning lies beneath each, too.

Focusing on the brutality misses the obvious interest Caravaggio had in capturing each unsettling moment of death and its unstudied emotional aftermath. The crimes might have been legendary, but what of the human responses in their wake?

Both paintings radiate a claustrophobic forcefulness that locks their heroes and anti-heroines into a lone, fateful moment that they can’t escape. Human carnage might just have happened, but the specter of untimely death and its complex psychic consequences seems to be the bigger revelation in each. With vivid light and dark shading—death against life, victory against futility, aggression against acceptance—Caravaggio adds deep contemplative depth to the violence wrought by these otherwise fanciful folklore stories.

Whether saint or martyr, hero or villain, the figures in Caravaggio’s art often move beyond flat, fabled archetypes to emerge as complex, emotionally tortured people, all players shown in vulnerable—and very human—tragedies. “The Last Caravaggio” might only feature two artworks, but it lets us see brutal, and often deeply moving, dramas brought to life thanks to the artist’s confrontations with death.

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