16. Mefloquine Dispatches: Caravaggio, October 2012
by Shane Granger
It is 2012.
I am starting to get noticeably sick but I don’t know what from. Not all the physical symptoms have arrived. My tinnitus was always present but mild. I put the vertigo down to heat, bad ankles or alcohol. My teeth and gums are still good. My face hasn’t gone red as yet. The fine tremor in my hands hasn’t started. I spasm in my sleep but the terror of having been given epilepsy is in my future.
The black dog never goes away. It has been with me for decades. It was accepted by the Army although they blame me for its occurrence. Over the years my family has become inured to its silent damage. My marriage hasn’t collapsed but the writing is on the wall.
I am watching the new Simon Schama series the Power of Art. We get to the episode dedicated to the life and works of Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio.
I don’t know the first thing about Caravaggio. Some people are turned away from him. He is unstable yet he has a power to turn art into majesty. He pioneers the art form of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and shadow. He is constantly in trouble. He drinks too much, prefers to sleep in cheap rooms and hang out with his cronies, who are little more than local bully-boys.
His art reeks of the dirt, sweat and blood of everyday life. In Young Sick Bacchus he makes God human. The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew is portrayed as the brutal murder it would have been. The victim lying on the floor on the cusp of shadows, his assailant highlighted with blade in hand ready to finish the killing. It’s all too real for the Catholic Church.
Caravaggio kills a man in 1606 in a duel but it is actually little more than a cold blooded murder. He is exiled and tries to paint his way out of trouble. In a cruel twist of fate he is pardoned but imprisoned on his way home. He gets out of his prison but misses his boat. He dies walking back to Rome with the painting of David with the Head of Goliath. It is a gift for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Prince of the Catholic Church who has pardoned him.
I am captured by this painting. Caravaggio is Goliath. He has painted himself as a villain. The young David is surrounded by light. I finally get art because I see an artist I understand. I totally get Caravaggio. It helps explain what is going wrong in my head.
I too am Goliath.
As Simon Schama noted in his documentary:
In Caravaggio’s time it was believed that artists were given their talent by God to bring beauty to the world and to put mortal creatures in touch with their higher selves or souls. Caravaggio never did anything the way it was supposed to be done.
In this painting of the victory of virtue over evil it’s supposed to be David who is the centre of attention, but have you ever seen a less jubilant victory? On his sword is inscribed “Humilitus Occideit Superbium”, that is, humility conquers pride. This is the battle that has been fought out inside Caravaggio’s head between the two sides of the painter that are portrayed here.
For me the power of Caravaggio’s art is the power of truth, not least about ourselves. If we are ever to hope for redemption we have to begin with the recognition that in all of us the Goliath competes with the David.”
Image: David with the Head of Goliath (1601)