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Caravaggio, The Final Years

National Gallery, London

IFa city's culture is taken into account when deciding who should host an Olympic Games, then London must be in with a strong chance. The capital is alive with hit West End shows, has concert halls, such as the Barbican, Royal Festival and Wigmore, that attract the world's major stars, ditto the Royal Opera House, while the English National Opera is a showcase for the best of British. The National Gallery has some most the most famous pictures in history hanging in its halls, while the TurnerWhistlerMonet exhibition at Tate Britain sits alongside the same Thames embankment that is depicted so atmospherically in those paintings.

But it is the National Gallery that has attracted the most recent attention, because of its exhibition, Caravaggio, The Final Years. To have put together this exhibition of 16 of his most famous and most obscure canvasses is a logistical feat that may never be repeated. Why only 16? Well, some that could have graced this exhibition are too fragile to travel, while their churches and museums for various reasons would not loan others out.

If there is one disappointment it is that Saint Jerome and the Beheading of St John the Baptist are notable absentees. Both paintings sit in St John's Cathedral in Valletta, a testament to one of the final passages of Caravaggio's rather interesting, yet short life. The Beheading of St John is not only a stunning picture, but also it was the only one he signed, written in the blood seeping from St John's slit neck. That, though, would be nit picking, as the National's exhibition is faultless, although bigger rooms could have been provided to accommodate the numbers who are flocking to see it.

Caravaggio v Sinatra

Caravaggio was a hero of mine. I know he was a murderer, allegedly liked young boys and hung around with whores and thieves, many who he used as models for his pictures, but we can't choose what our heroes do in their own time, although he did liven up the post-Renaissance era. I mean, Sinatra's another hero, and he was also lacking a few social skills.

Caravaggio

The exhibition is housed in six halls tracing the final four years of a life that ended mysteriously at 39. It follows him as he first flees Rome after killing Ranuccio Tomassoni after a row about a tennis match bet which Caravaggio lost, presumably the wager was not on whether Tim Henman would ever get to a Wimbledon final. Caravaggio, real name Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, moves South to Naples, then to Malta before getting a boat back North to Sicily and then finally Naples. It is a story that can be told in his pictures like no other.

George Michael lookalike

The one exception to the 1606 and after theme is his original Supper at Emmaus, which as it is permanently house in the National, only had a few yards to travel. It was painted in 1601 and sits alongside the same subject painted five years later. The original has a clean-shaven, rotund-faced Christ sitting down to a meal with two companions, who suddenly realise who they are about to eat chicken and bread with, and a bemused innkeeper. Its sharpness, the scarlet of his robe and the faint light with shadow were all Caravaggio trademarks. The fruit sits precariously on the edge of the table, flawed with bruises and maggot holes, showing just why he was the best still life painter. The second picture is darker, his robe the colour of spring grass, everyone, like Caravaggio, older. Jesus now has George Michael stubble, his dining companions are less expressive, and the innkeeper is joined possibly by his wife. Even the food is less optimistic, consisting of two bread rolls, one broken sitting on a couple of lettuce leaves.

The highlight of Room 2 is The Flagellation, painted in 1607. It shows Christ being tied forcefully by two men to a column, his head bowed, his body twisted. But there is a third man, bending at Christ's feet, rope strapped round his left had. The detail that is so magnificent is that this third man's head and hair cast a shadow over Christ's legs so sharp that it looks like it has been superimposed by modern-day technology.

By Room 3 he has arrived in Malta where he achieves his aim of becoming a Knight of Malta before encountering further trouble and captivity. He manages to escape the fortress, or does an admirer release him? Here we see a Portrait of a Knight of Malta, although not the more famous one of Alof de Wignacourt, which has permanent residence in the Louvre, and Sleeping Cupid, again another subject with his body twisted.

The centrepiece of the whole exhibition is in Room 4, The Raising of Lazarus, a long canvas in which eyes are either focused on Jesus or his friend Lazarus, whose body forms a cross in the arms of his family. Caravaggio was not one for leaving space but this one has a long, imposing wall dominating the top half of the picture.

Hold on to your head in Room 5 because beheading is a central theme. Could Caravaggio have seen the end of his days or was he repentant? Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist is depicted twice, one painted circa 1606-7, the other between 1607-10. The first is passive, with St John's head lying sideways on a platter, Salome in a crimson cloak, her companions looking sorrowfully down at the head. The second is more active. Again Salome looks away and the old lady stares at the head, which has now been lifted so it is hanging over the tray. It is believed that this painting was sent to the Grand Master of the Knight's of Saint John as a peace offering.

Last offering

The final picture, on its own in Room 6, is the only one that could end such an exhibition: David with the Head of Goliath. The head is a self-portrait of the artist, the life draining from his eyes as the blood flows from his severed neck, held in David's left hand. Although the dateline of the painting is 1606-10, it is thought that this was one of his last and was on its way back to Rome, again as a peace offering (here he was offering his own head to his accusers), this time to The Pope. The painting arrived, but Caravaggio did not. Time had finally caught up with him, although whether his pursuers had remains an untold tale.

Viewed by Peter Wilson


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