Caravaggio is a Dude

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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How it works

1. Intro paragraph

a. Slow intro

i. There are few artists who are still remembered around the world centuries after their death, most will only be remembered for a one piece they made, if they are lucky. Defying these odds there are some artists that the world remembers and recognize as one of the greats long after their time.

b. Caravaggio basic rundown

i. One artist like this is Michelangelo Merisi. He was born in Italy around 1571 and after being orphaned at age 11 he began an apprenticeship with a painter in Milan.

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This began the career of the famous painter who is now well known as Caravaggio.

c. Thesis

i. The painting Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio, a well-known Baroque artist, illustrates a scene featuring two women from the bible using in depth symbolism as well as artist styles of his time period, creating a captivating piece famous to this day.

2. Body

a. Baroque time period info

i. During the mid-1500’s the Catholic church was feeling threatened by increasing conversion of the population to Lutheranism. After the council of Trent which met from 1545 to 1563, the Catholic Church began the counter reformation in an attempt to regain their lost followers reiterating and reaffirming its fundamental teachings. Due to a large mass of their followers were unable to read at this time, a large part of this attempt was using art. This is the beginning of the baroque era. In its early years, the term Baroque was a derogatory term used to call something over exaggerated, a feature now known to be very prevalent in art from this period. Art pieces created by Baroque artists were intense and highly realistic with rich colors and dramatic lighting. Tenerism was often utilized in Baroque paintings, where the artist would place very dark values against very light values to create a stunning effect. (Camara)

b. Caravaggio bio info

i. Caravaggio did have patrons who wanted to sponsor him and buy his art but that didn’t mean he was well liked during his lifetime. Many artists thought that his way of depicting people was a humiliation to art itself. He was one of the only artists of his time who chose to reject the current standard of only capturing the ideal and things of perfect beauty. He painted ordinary people who he showed flaws in, whether it be tattered clothes or muddy feet. Even in his religious pieces he painted the saints and other figures with imperfections. Painters of his time such as Nicolas Poussin scoffed at this and he had many critics saying he was a disgrace to the art form. Francine Prose wrote of Poussin’s hatred of his work stating, “Caravaggio’s portrayals of whores, criminals, and laborers with rough hands and dirty feel threatened what Poussin considered to be the most essential principle of art- specifically, the notion that the artist should represent ideal beauty, perfect proportion, and classical decorum” (7).

ii. Caravaggio, unlike many artists of his time never wrote anything of his life down and we only know what we do know from official documents saved, along with what we know of history at that time (Prose 14). Caravaggio, though protected by his rich patrons, lead a strange life with brawls and duels, which in the end was his downfall. Even his death has an air of mystery, all we know for sure is from historical accounts. We know he took a boat northward in 1610 with some of his possessions and paintings and that is the last we hear of Caravaggio alive. A private newsletter from Rome reported Caravaggio dead on July 28th and a poet friend of Caravaggio later gave the date of death as July 18th. A recent researcher claims to have revealed a death notice showing that the artist died of fever in Porto Ercole, near Grosseto in Tuscany. Injuries

c. Topic of painting (religion)

i. In the New Testament of the bible, there were two women talked of briefly, Martha and Mary. In Luke 10:38-42 both the sisters are in the home of Martha with Jesus, Martha focused on household tasks and Mary sitting at Jesus’s feet listening to him speak. They are the focus of a lesson on how to treat your house guests properly, Martha being the example of how not to treat your guests. They are also mentioned in John 11:1-12:8 where they are again with Jesus trying to heal their brother Lazarus. When they arrive, Lazarus is already deceased and when Mary begins to cry, Jesus raises him from the dead. Martha in this passage tells everyone that Jesus is the Messiah. (Beavis)

ii. Mary of Bethany, the sister in these stories is often confused with Mary Magdalene, who was a woman commonly thought to have been a prostitute (though no biblical evidence supports this) and was one of Jesus’s followers before his crucifixion. She was also the first to see Jesus after his resurrection and was said to hold “secret wisdom”. Early Christians often thought these two different women, both named Mary, were the same person and it is unclear if this painting is intending to show the two sisters or Martha with the sinner Mary Magdalene (Swenson). It makes more sense to be the later due to all the heavy symbolism in the painting to portray Mary as vain and not close in her relationship to God and Jesus yet, but it is possible Caravaggio thought that Mary Magdalene was indeed Martha’s sister in the bible.

d. Symbolism in painting

i. The two women in this painting are both dressed in similar colors but with a careful eye you can see the signs of sin that encapsulate the figure on the right. Her hair more elegantly styled and her dress more complex, the figure representing Mary Magdalene is surrounded by symbols of vanity. Complicated embroidery and fine satin like material cover her dress along with fancy ruffles along the sleeves. The other objects seen in the painting are also used to show Mary’s vanity: a hand mirror, hair comb, and cosmetic dish with a makeup sponge. The large convex mirror is used to illuminate and capture Mary’s face in a moment of spiritual enlightenment. She is clutching a small sprig of orange blossom to her chest, perhaps to represent the sudden realization she is undergoing and to represent her mystic marriage to Christ, while Martha unaware of this change of heart continues to try to show her the error of her ways. (Ebert-Schifferer 105-106)

e. Is it a Caravaggio? History of the painting

i. This painting originally belonged to Pope Clement VII’s niece Olimpia Aldobrandini, according to the inventory of the Guardaroba (office that administered her property) dated 1606. It was passed down to her daughter and then entered the Pamphilij Collection through her marriage to Prince Camillo. The painting was later purchased by the Panzani family, collectors from Arezzo, in the 19th century and it appeared in Argentina in 1909 where it stayed until being purchased by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1974.

ii. It was considered a copy until the 1970s when it was authenticated by Mahon and its authorship confirmed by almost unanimously by critics. There is still a small debate today of whether or not it is a true Caravaggio but most have agreed that it is.

iii. Though it not particularly proof of authenticity an interesting thing about this painting is that it features a round mirror, also featured in other works of Caravaggio, and among others objects is it included in a 1605 inventory of Caravaggio’s possessions. (Vodret 86)

3. Ending paragraph

a. Restate thesis

i. Altogether, though we know little about Caravaggio, we do know he embodied the much of the Baroque period and his painting Martha and Mary Magdalene show how both how his painting method was that typical of the time but unique at the same time.

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Caravaggio is a Dude. (2019, Jul 28). Retrieved from