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Caravaggio: Hell on Wheels and Heaven on Canvas

By Kahren Jones Arbitman

Considering Caravaggio’s soaring twenty-first century popularity, it is worth noting that this acclaim is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the seventeenth century, knowledge of his paintings, with their distinctive lighting and confrontational compositions, were well known throughout Western Europe. However, interest in his art waned in the following centuries, leaving Caravaggio marginalized and absent from any list of major Old Masters.

“Caravaggio: Hell on Wheels and Heaven on Canvas”
By Kahren Jones Arbitman
Thu, Aug 17, 5pm
Concert Hall, second floor Bellas Artes, Hernandez Macias
150 peso donation
Benefit San Miguel International Chamber Music Festival

While it may seem cynical, what may have sparked modern-day interest in the artist was his outrageous lifestyle. Caravaggio was a sword-carrying ruffian, miscreant, and unsavory human being. His rap sheet was filled with crimes and misdemeanors, some ridiculous, like throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, others quite serious. Caravaggio did, in fact, murder a man over a tennis score.

Were this not enough, when mid-twentieth-century art historians finally set aside self-imposed strictures and began to discuss Caravaggio’s early homoerotic paintings created for patrons with similar inclinations, the public wanted to know all; Caravaggio’s Roman altarpieces, which had hung undisturbed in chapels for centuries, were suddenly inundated with viewers. The happy ending is that the public may have come for the notoriety, but once there, they were greeted with extraordinary works of art.

The great conundrum in Caravaggio studies is squaring his dissipated life with the profound religiosity of his paintings. His altarpiece of the Madonna of Loreto unabashedly speaks directly to the common man. With unshod pilgrims displaying mud-caked feet to the viewer, Caravaggio makes clear that the lowest among us is welcome to kneel before the divine. In his Entombment of Christ, Christ’s body is painted with the astounding verisimilitude that made him famous. Its deathly pallor is haunting. More remarkable still, Christ is about to be lowered into a grave not within the painted picture plane, but rather right into the viewer’s space. This was pushing art into new territory.

This lecture will examine Caravaggio’s art in the context of his life, itself cut short by the artist’s endless provocations. Without the brawls, the self-indulgence, the flights from prosecution, all of which lead inexorably to his death at thirty-seven, how many more masterpieces could he have left to posterity? Or, were his personality and his artistic production so thoroughly intertwined that one was impossible without the other? This question, of course, is unanswerable, but the lecture will tell the story and attendees can draw the conclusions.

The lecture takes place Thursday, August 17, at 5pm. in the concert hall in the Bellas Artes. Tickets are 150 pesos. All proceeds benefit the San Miguel International Chamber Music Festival, now celebrating its 39th consecutive year. Tickets are available at the Festival office on the second floor of the Bellas Artes or at the door.

Kahren Arbitman, PhD, is an art historian and former curator and art museum director. Please mark your calendar for her third lecture, Rembrandt: The Man & the Myth, Thursday August 24, 5pm, Bellas Artes concert hall.


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