A Very Caravaggian Easter

I told my dad that I was stumped this week for a blog post and he said “Well, when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with Caravaggio.” He’s not wrong. So, I got to thinking about the beautiful Baroque masterpieces that Caravaggio painted, and realized that he created a lot of paintings surrounding the story of Jesus’ death. What a fitting time of year to look at some of these artworks! I scoured the internet to find as many Caravaggio paintings as I could that follow the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus and I’ve put them together here for you all. Let’s begin:

Our story starts at night. After the Passover meal (the last supper), Jesus is told to have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He knew that this was his last night before his crucifixion and that he would be handed over to the Romans in mere hours. When he had finished praying, he went back to find his friends (who were supposed to be keeping watch) fast asleep. Caravaggio depicts this moment above.

Caravaggio shows us the betrayal of Judas in this next painting. As foreknown to Jesus, Judas, his friend and disciple, told the Romans where Jesus would be that night in exchange for money. The soldiers were told that when they arrived, they would know that the man whom Judas kissed was Jesus. Caravaggio paints this scene with lots of movement — the Roman soldiers lunge forward to seize Jesus, a disciple on the left cries out in distress, fabric blows in the wind — and yet there is a stillness found in the part of the painting where Judas is kissing Jesus’ face.

We then skip quite far ahead to the part of the story in which Jesus has been arrested, sent to Pontius Pilate, questioned by the Sanhedrin, and is back with Pilate to see if the crowd wants Jesus crucified. In the midst of all of that craziness, Peter is recognized in the street as being a disciple and friend of Jesus. Peter denies any association with Jesus three times, just as Jesus had told him he would do. Caravaggio paints this scene with Peter cornered by a man who is aggressively pointing at him. Peter’s hands are folded into his chest as if to ask, “Who, me?” while the dramatic lighting shines on his face, crumpled in denial.

Caravaggio paints Jesus being scourged before his crucifixion two different times within the same year. Though the moment is the same, the compositions are quite different. In the painting on the left, the two men are actively beating Jesus. They are in shadows while Jesus is in the direct light, leading us to see his downturned head.

He looks defeated even though his body seems to be in perfect condition. This is similar to the painting on the right. Jesus is again in direct light which shows his body without blemish. The two men in this painting do not actively hurt him, but instead seem to be trying to hold him back before they begin. Jesus looks to the side with a hopeful look on his face as if showing that this is not the end of his story.

Caravaggio also paints two images of Jesus being crowned with thorns. Again, he paints one in which Jesus looks defeated and another where he looks around for help or in hope. In both, one or more men use sticks to force the headdress of thorny branches onto his head. There is a third figure in both which stands with their back to us. In his 1602 painting, the third is another man helping to hold Jesus down, but in his later painting the third man wears armor and merely watches him get tortured. Jesus’ torso in both paintings is contorted in some way to show his agony in this moment.

Caravaggio then takes us to the moment after Jesus has died and is being laid in his tomb. The Entombment is instantly recognizable as a Caravaggio painting and is probably one of his most well-known. His use of chiaroscuro identifies it as a Baroque painting, and this dramatic lighting adds a somber effect to this scene of anguish. The two men heave as they place the body of Jesus into the tomb. The women mourn in various ways behind them. The costumes in this painting are exquisitely painted to drape across the figures with acute accuracy. The body of Christ looks as heavy as a dead body would be and yet it looks perfect as if he hadn’t just been brutally beaten and then crucified.

Though Caravaggio doesn’t give us a scene of the resurrection of Jesus to complete this Easter storyline, he does give us the subject of next Sunday’s reading, which is when Jesus appears to Thomas. In this story, Thomas (like any sane person) didn’t believe his eyes when Jesus appeared before him and Jesus instructed him to put his hand inside the wounds from his crucifixion so that Thomas would know it was really Jesus. Caravaggio paints Jesus in a state of humility as he bends his head down and opens his cloak. Thomas is depicted here with his eyes so wide that his forehead crinkles nearly a hundred times in incredulousness.

Thanks for going on this journey through some of Caravaggio’s art with me! See you next week.

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