The Opening of the Fifth Seal

 El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1614

The Opening of the Fifth Seal also known as The Vision of Saint John depicts the biblical story from the Book of Revelation (6:9-10). The story describes St. John’s vision of the apocalypse. Behind the subject, St. John attired in blue, he martyrs pray to G-d for justice from their persecutions on Earth. The unclothed martyrs yearn to receive the white cloth of salvation from the heavens. The Opening of the Fifth Seal was created as one of three altarpieces for the Church of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist. These three pieces included: an Annunciation, Baptism and The Opening of the Fifth Seal. This hospital resides in Toledo and was founded by the Cardinal Juan Tavera in 1541. Tavera was buried within the walls of his beloved hospital. 

Within this work, El Greco's most iconic features are illustrated. The wispy background with patches of white creates a darker atmosphere surrounding the depressing subject matter. St. John's bright blue garment and the bright sheets towards the back of the painting accentuate the darkness in the background. The elongated body of St. John makes him appear larger, therefore, further showcasing that he is the subject. This three-fold project was El Greco’s last major endeavor, though he did not live to see its completion, his piece became an inspiration for more recent modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso and his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
  • 7:00 AM

Assumption of the Virgin

El Greco, Assumption of the Virgin, 1577

This colossal and stupefying panel by "the Greek" immediately fascinated me when I saw it in the Art Institute of Chicago. Measuring more than 13 feet tall and almost seven feet wide, this vignette of the Virgin's ascent into heaven demands the attention of anyone passing by.

While one may guess El Greco painted this after years of masterpieces under his fancy, black robe-belt because of the exceptional quality of the Assumption of the Virgin, this was his first big-time commission in Spain. Along with three other paintings of his, and his own burial place, this painting was originally located in the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain. Today it lies across from the equally (yet entirely different in its approach) religious and captivating Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbarán painted a half century later.

The juxtaposition in styles of Spanish painting during the Renaissance: a beautiful, colorful, and fantastical mannerist painting against the realistic, focused, and bare-bones execution of Zurbarán's Crucifixion entranced all museum-goers circulating through this room. On one end, we have a clear glorification of Christianity and the wonders associated with the belief. On the other end, the clear, undistracted, and undeniably apparent pain and violence inflicted upon God's son, Jesus, conveying to any viewer the sacrifice he endured for their sins.

Subversive to the conventional and uninformed view of Renaissance art being dull, comically incorrect in perspective, and ugly, this painting will surely convert all non-believers in paintings that are not from recent history. On that note, there is a beauty in how this was painted for the purpose of illustrating the grandeur of God, but today we have the liberty to attach our own individual post-modern interpretation and meaning to these masterpieces in Christian art painted four-hundred years ago.  We may see this painting with knowledge of other art that was created around the globe well before, well after, or perhaps in the same place fifty years later, as we've done. I find the non-period eye a fascinating tool that should be capitalized more upon in the academic community. Of course it is crucial to appreciate a piece of art for what it's worth in the context, conditions, and period it was created in, we should also recognize our fortunate position to make the comparisons that we do.

In the painting itself, I noticed the clear division between the mystified Apostles and the surprise-party-like celebration of the angels in heaven. When seeing this in person, I was enthralled with the use of scale and how it influenced the viewing experience of the painting. The figures in the lower half appear close to human size, letting the voyeur become a part of this religious event. Then, the accepting and embracing motion of the Virgin assenting into heaven leads the eyes up well into the sky where heaven is — a pseudo-immersive experience that demonstrates El Greco's excellence in what he did.
  • 7:00 AM

St. Apollonia

Fransisco de Zurbarán, St. Apollonia, 1636

Say you had a horrible tooth ache back in the day. The only way to treat said tooth ache was to pray to this lovely Saint painted here in hopes of getting some sort of relief.  Saint Apollonia, the Patron Saint of Dentistry, was martyred for not renouncing her faith under the reign of Emperor Phillip. According to "Catholic Online," Saint Apollonia's teeth were painfully knocked out by a Christian persecutor, and after being threatened to be burned at the stake if she did not renounce her faith, she voluntarily jumped into the flames. She dies in the year 249.

Saint Apollonia, painted by Zurbarán in 1636, wears a colorful dress and green shawl that rests over her shoulders. A flower crown tops her flawless, pink-blushed face and a bow wraps around her tiny waist. However, like most paintings of Saint Apollonia, she is holding an interesting item in her right hand. Looking into it closer, she is hold a pair of elongated pliers and ripped out tooth. Zurbarán's other Patron Saint paintings also include an item or body part of what makes the Saint special. Examples include his painting of Saint Lucy holding her scooped out eyes, or even his depiction of Saint Agatha with get the point.
  • 7:00 AM

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

Image result for the martyrdom of st lawrence tibaldi
Tibaldi, The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, 1592

Saint Lawrence was a deacon in Rome and in charge of distributing alms to the poor provided by the church.  He then distributed the church's treasures, not just money but actual treasure, to the poor. The Prefect of Rome came to visit and wanted to see the treasures of the church, but when Lawrence brought forth the poor people holding the treasures, the Prefect ordered that he be killed over a fire, He is most well known for saying, "I'm well done, turn me over" and this made him the saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians. Now some people believe that the story is the result of mistranslated word, usually deacons, priests, and bishops were hanged.

The colors are bright and bold in the foreground and the dark background contrasts with the figure of St. Lawrence.  His pale skin and angle of the light puts him in a spotlight.  He almost seems to lounge on the bed of fire while all of the other figures bent and tensing in violent poses.  The painting has lots of action and anger, accentuated by the red glow from the fire, so that Lawrence's sublime expression becomes the center of focus. The fire glow both illuminates and creates more shadow to the figures around it.  Saint Lawrence is not touched by the red light or even the fire underneath him, which only sets him off from the rest of the painting.  

  • 7:00 AM

The Surrender of Breda

The Surrender of Breda, Diego Velazquez, 1635

 La rendición de Breda (in English The Surrender of Breda) is a painting by Diego Velazquez during the Spanish Golden Age. The historical context is that the Spanish Empire is involved in a war against the Kingdom of France, the kingdom of England, the Kingdom of Denmark and The United Provinces of Netherlands. That war was called the Eighty Years war or the War in Flanders. In 1624 with 18,000 soldiers, the Spanish army under the command of Ambrosio Spinola, attacked the city of Breda protected by a garrison of 14,000 soldiers under the command of Maurice of Orange. At this point the battle was going well. The problem started when the besieged received the support of 6,000 English and 2,000 danish. Fortunately for the Spaniards, they received 500 soldiers that could resist the charge of the Danish army, and the English could not break the siege. As a result the besieged decided to surrender. Spain's loss turned into be a victory. 
painted symbolic signs. For instance, the Spaniards got bigger and more pikes than the rebels. Another symbol is that there are columns of fumes going straight to the sky on the rebels' side, which means the destruction of the rebel army. In the background a Tercio is taking the city. The last symbol is the clearness of the sky, which means  that God wants Spain to win a war against the protestants. An important detail that we must consider in this work is that Velazquez has not painted the battle, but the end of it when Nassau hands the keys to Spinola. The battle scenes of the Renaissance insisted on the power of the conqueror over the vanquished. Velazquez intentionally departs from this puts both generals on an equal footing. If you realize there is no mood to humiliate the enemy. Spinola does not allow Nassau to give the keys of the city on his knees as was usual, but he places his hand on his shoulder with condescension, which highlights the chivalry, gallantry, and honor of the victorious Spaniards. The victory is without arrogance, because forgiveness exalts more than vengeance, clemency is an allegory of the prince. It is evident that the attitude of nobility of both commanders and the patience show us virtuousness.

  • 7:00 AM

Death of the Virgin

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1605-6

A man of controversy himself, Caravaggio's work followed suit. This painting at completion was rejected by the clergy and by the patron because of its indecency. There were rumors that the model for the Virgin Mary was a woman of the night that Caravaggio found in a river and dragged into the studio.

Additionally, the suggestion that she is dead welcomed even more distress among the Catholic community. Her sickly and bloated feet and hands along with her frazzled hair suggests that she is, in fact, dead. To quote Monty Python, she "is no more! [She] has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace!"

It appears that her death occurred and was neither instantaneous nor holy. The Apostles and the young woman in the foreground (who I will assume is Mary Magdalene) grieve like she had died like any other mortal, and did not assent into heaven without "dying," as it is suggested in the Bible. Unlike other artists at the time, Mary is not embracing the heavens or is surrounded by angels and cherubs. Instead, she appears grounded on Earth. And her halo is barely visible. While this is a spiritual painting, few clues suggest this.

One of these indications is the beautiful red draping fabric that mirrors the scene below it. Somewhat of a mannerist flare to the image, it covers about one third of the painting's composition. Because its color is the same as the Virgin Mary's dress, Caravaggio hints that this is her soul ascending into heaven. Other Assumption of the Virgin paintings of this time appear almost nothing like this rendition. This masterpiece looks to be happening right before us as if we are standing right behind the brass bowl on the ground. Like in Giotto's Lamentation about three hundred years before, Caravaggio welcomes the viewer right into the scene as if we were witnessing this biblical scene with the rest of them.

This is just one of several dark, Earthly, captivating, controversial and so well executed paintings Caravaggio produced as he matured and grew more insane. How can such a mad man create such beautiful and contemporary art?

  • 7:00 AM

Boy with a Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593

In 1884, John Singer-Sargent famously painted Madame X, which was displayed at the Salon in Paris. In the painting, Madame X dons an elegant black gown with straps. A little known facts is that Singer-Sargent originally painted one of the straps to fall off of her shoulder. This scandalous choice received backlash from viewers and the model, enough so that Sargent repainted the strap securely around her shoulder.

John Singer-Sargent, Madame X, 1884

In 1593, Caravaggio painted Boy with a Basket of Fruit. When I first looked at this work, my eyes were drawn to the boy’s muscular shoulder, rather than to the vibrant fruit. His the white cloth of his shirt rests below his shoulder. Immediately I remembered Singer-Sargent’s Madame X. Is Boy with a Basket of Fruit the original Madame X?

The fruit is captured at its peak of ripeness. The boy, at 16 years of age, is also at peak ripeness. Caravaggio could have just painted the fruit, like he did with Basket of Fruit in 1599. Rather than set his basket of fruit to a plain background, he places it in the hands of a boy, who was actually fellow painter Mario Minniti. By painting a boy holding the fruit, he adds depth and emotion to the work, since he captures the strong colors of the fruit, the emotions of the boy, and the tension between the boy’s body and the basket.

The boy stood for who knows how long as Caravaggio painted this masterpiece. His muscles are flexed from holding the basket and his head is leaned back. His face shows a look of annoyance and boredom, as if the face was painted a few hours into his modeling session. Still, face also has a sensual look. The boy’s sleeve has conveniently fallen off the boy’s shoulder, letting the viewer get a nice view of his built upper body.

The light hits the boys’ face and shoulder, causing him to glisten. The fruit is also highlighted by the light source coming from the upper left corner. The boy, his white shirt, and the colorful fruit pop against the shadows in the background. His dark hair adds interesting contrast with the lightness of the background at the top of the painting.

Caravaggio is a master of details. The wicker basket looks intricate and well-constructed. The folds in the boy’s shirt look real. Each morsel of fruit looks freshly picked. The boy’s face and flesh looks realistic. Caravaggio’s great eye for detail and skill helps his paintings come to life.

*In Simon Schama’s The Power of Art: Caravaggio Andrew Garfield portrays the Boy with a Basket of Fruit. I would like to start a petition for praise of his performance. #Oscar4Andrew, get it trending people.
  • 7:00 AM

Martha and Mary Magdalene

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598


Mary Magdalene is often seen as the woman lamenting over the feet of Christ. Although in Caravaggio’s depiction of the young women she resembles a well put together socialite, not a grieving widow. A woman before her life was changed by God. Caravaggio, not one to fuss around with titles, simply called the painting Martha and Mary Magdalene. Despite the ordinary name, through Martha and Mary Magdalene Caravaggio intimately captures a moment between two sisters as they debate the meaning of life. 

He draws the viewer in the with blockly table, exposing the slightly run down corner on the left to demonstrate the wear and tear of the space Martha and Mary Magdalene occupy. Additionally he brings the viewer’s gaze upwards with the lacks of objects on the table. Caravaggio closes off the left-side of the paintings with Martha’s attire. His use heavy draping mimics the background and table, demonstrating how Martha exists as part of the scene, part of the world with the worn down corners. 

Mary Magdalene represents the opposite with her ornate dress, with the heavy beading on her bodice in comparison to her sister’s simpleton dress. Despite different styles, Caravaggio's parallels the sister’s bond in the the red hues that fall of their left shoulders. Although here by painting Martha’s red slighter duller and without elaborate folding, Caravaggio references Martha’s maturity and responsibility. While Mary’s vibrant red cloth hints at life just being, a red not yet tarnished or dulled by time, but awaiting it’s arrival into the world. Caravaggio continues this theme with the green hues as well, juxtaposing the Mary vibrancy with Martha's dullness. 

Despite the lack of blood and violence in Martha and Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio still creates immense tension regarding the bond between the two. According to the New Testament story, this scene depicts Martha attempting to convert Mary Magdalene to follow Jesus Christ. Through Martha’s open palms, one feels her desperation and with Mary Magdalene’s gnarled fingers one feels her anxiety and fear of the unknown. 

Martha’s openness indicates her lack of fear, while Mary Magdalene’s desperate clutch on the flower in her hand and attachment to the mirror to her right represents a fear of letting go. Mary Magdalene’s right hand hovers above the light source of the painting which stems from the a slightly off centered point in the mirror. Mary points to this unknown source of light, asking to her sister, "Is this glimpse of light God?" Martha's upward glance of the head toward Mary and the light confirms Mary's beliefs. Yet do they agree? 

Caravaggio uses different lines of sight for the two women to represent a disconnect between the two, to demonstrate that despite the obvious similarities between the two women a spiritual connection is nonexistent. 

I love the intimacy of the painting, the feelings that I am invading a private moment between two sisters and questioning whether I should slowly tip toe out the backdoor. Caravaggio does not need blood to make the viewer uncomfortable. By making you feel as if you have intruded on something, Caravaggio makes you feel a part of something more important than yourself. 

Caravaggio takes religious figures outside of heaven to relate them to his people of Rome. For God acts the same on the filthy streets of Rome as he does in the most prestigious rooms of Vatican. In the case of Caravaggio perhaps his desire to see everyone on his level, relates back to his lack of title and sufficient funds. Caravaggio proves how little pedigree matters by ripping God out of the heavens and placing him in a darkly lit room, home to the ordinary. 

I charge you to look at Martha and Mary Magdalene without thinking of the biblical story or title, think about two women just talking about life, weighing out wealth and fulfillment, just trying to figure out their place in this great big world. For in the eyes of Caravaggio, we peasants are the models of God. Caravaggio forces you to recognize your humanity head on. It’s time get your head out of those gold trimmed clouds and let the dark Earth engulf you.
  • 3:55 PM


Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597

Ovid's Metamorphoses tells the greek myth of Narcissus, a hunter. The story goes that Narcissus's beauty caused many to fall in love with him. Narcissus, however, greeted all affections with contempt, thinking of no one as worthy. One day as Narcissus hunted through the forest, the mountain nymph, Echo, fell and love and followed him. When he began to catch on that someone was following, Echo revealed herself to him with open arms. Narcissus, being a narcissist, rejected Echo, leaving her brokenhearted. Nemesis, the G-d of revenge, then decided Narcissus deserved punishment for his evil actions. Nemesis brought Narcissus to a pond, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. Initially, Narcissus did not recognize the thing as his own reflection, but when he figured it out he committed suicide over the sadness that his love could not become real.

In Caravaggio's painting of Narcissus, Narcissus acts as the only light in a void of black. The boy stares down longingly and leans into his own perfectly reflected image. The way Caravaggio tilts and pulls forward the head brings it in line with the boy's shoulders to create a parabolic body. The connection of the two semi-circles from the land and water creates a circle. The circle shuts out the background and focuses on Narcissus's self obsession, and his living within his own bubble. It also draws in the theme of the never ending cycle of narcissism. Minimal evidence exists to prove that Caravaggio painted this Narcissus, but the soft and sinister shadowing is characteristic of Caravaggio's style.
  • 7:00 AM

Judith Beheading Holofernes

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Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598

Holofernes was an invading general poised to attack Judith's city, Bethulia. As the city leaders were about to surrender, Judith walked into Holofernes' camp and used her womanly super powers of seduction to get the general drunk and distract him. She slept with Holofernes then slit his throat as he lay passed out from the alcohol. Judith is often seen with her hand maiden, an elderly woman, who holds the bag to put Holofernes' head in. Caravaggio captures the general's pain and surprise and Judith's determination perfectly. The old lady looks pissed at Holofernes for bleeding on the sheets; she looks like she just said, "He finally got what he deserved."

The red cloth above them could represent Holofernes' soul leaving, like in Caravaggio's painting of Mary's death. But, the fabric does not have the same upward movement, meaning that Holofernes' soul is not going to Heaven. The red cloth cold also mean that the threat to Bethulia dissolved with the beheading of the general. Bethulia's salvation came with the blood/head of Holofernes.  Another interpretation is that the downward motion of the fabric is a divine force guiding Judith's hand.  One of the folds lines up perfectly with her sword arm.

As much as I would celebrate Judith's actions, I doubt her fellow villagers would agree. She was an unmarried widow who slept with an enemy soldier, then she killed him. She may have saved her city, but a woman's worth at that time was based on their purity and softness. Judith's actions would have resulted in the degradation of her reputation and possibly punishment. I like to think that she knew what the repercussions could be and decided to carry out her plan anyway.
  • 7:00 AM

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, Caravaggio, 1599-1600
The story of the painting is one from the Bible. Hirticus, a king, wanted to marry the niece of St. Matthew, Iphigenia. However, because she had been resurrected by St. Matthew and was an abbess of a convent, St. Matthew refused the marriage. Enraged by his refusal, Hirticus had him killed. Caravaggio was known for mixing religious devotion with the chaotic modern world, in which death, cheating, and murder happened daily.

Caravaggio's painting depicts the inside of a dark, vast church, where converts wait, undressed and prepared for their baptism. Despite the religious precedents for this painting, in which they focus on the ascension of St. Matthew as the center of the painting, Caravaggio chooses to place the assassin at the center of the painting, light falling on him, as his figure and the figure of St. Matthew form a triangle at the center of the painting. This is an odd irony; the light falls, godlike, on the killer, while St. Matthew's body seems almost ready to fall backwards into the abyss below him. As the assassin prepares the killing blow, the figures of the converted scatter and flee, while the only one to stay is the angel descending, ready to place the palm of the martyr into St. Matthew's outstretched hand.
  • 7:00 AM

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Caravaggio, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608
Brutal...violent...and just downright Caravaggio.

Caravaggio portrays the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist, removing divine aspects commonly associated with religious works. The impulsive painter created this altar piece following his admittance into the Order of St. John while taking refuge in Malta. When The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was revealed to an audience of knights and nobleman, everyone gazed with an eye of eerie discomfort and brutality. Caravaggio takes a saintly figure and violently buries him into the Earth, evoking no sentiments of becoming closer with God or passage to Heaven. The muscular assassin seemingly pins John downward with no escape, turning this into a seemingly back alley murder in a dainty corner. Even the figures around the corpse, aside from the old woman, lack emotion standing next to a horrible act of murder. Caravaggio pushes the boundaries even further, signing "F. Michelan" in the spewing blood from John's neck. Some historians believe this is short for Fra Michelangelo, meaning Brother Michelangelo (his first name). Or, could he be comparing himself to one of the greats?

The composition is split by the dark brick column, part of the larger arch behind the figures. Caravaggio leaves a noticeable amount of excess space, all of which are somber browns and near blacks. The earthy color scheme helps John's piercing red cloak strike the viewer more intensely. In other Caravaggio paintings, he used red sheets to represent the transfer of a body from Earth to Heaven, however here its different. The murderer's foot pins the red cloak down, suppressing from John from advancing upward. The gory imagery of John being so heavily defeated seems ironic given Caravaggio intended this painting to go to the Order of St. John. Though, are we really surprised? Undeniably one of the most talented in history, Caravaggio's unpredictability and rebellious nature makes his works even more enjoyable to study. 
  • 7:00 AM

Young Sick Bacchus

Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus, 1593

Caravaggio's mythological characters are always seem more like humans rather than God. His more bright version of Bacchus is more youthful and cheerful with his brightly-colored cheeks. The model of this painting also looks just like random person from the streets.

Painted in 1593, another edition of Bacchus painting was added to Caravaggio's collection. More opposite and twisted version of Bacchus, the party and wine god. Bacchus's translucent skin, and pale lips gives the illusion of him slowly wilting, just like the grapes his holding and the plant crown he's wearing. The facial expression of Bacchus seems more mature and physically aged.
  • 7:00 AM

The Cardsharps

The Cardsharps, 1594, Michelangelo Caravaggio

Carvaggio, an unmatchable talent of the Italian renaissance, had an exceptional yet short lived career. He clearly mastered portraying emotions. No matter the scene his characters all carry out the intended reaction perfectly. He creates the composure by manipulating the facial muscles of his characters. Specifically the man in the far back of the painting with forehead creases draws my attention. The characters are overlapped creating a circular motion around the scene, especially through their eyes.

By portraying emotions so well, Caravaggio is also able to represent the evil in the world through the petty crime. Typically done through violence, this is an unusual scene for Caravaggio to paint. During this point in his career Caravaggio was working to become an independent artist. In The Cardsharps, Caravaggio portrays a man being cheated out of a card game in one of his more colorful works. Perhaps Caravaggio was portraying his excitement about his advancement as an artist while experimenting with ways to show the evil in the world without gore.
  • 7:00 AM

The Musicians

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Musicians, 1595 


This masterful work, The Musicians, epitomizes the Baroque period through its composition and artistry. Caravaggio extenuates drama and tension throughout his work, characteristic of the Baroque era. The Baroque period marked change in music and arts. Music of the period featured staccato phrases and the emergence of many new stylistic forms: including the fugue, sonata, suite and concerto grosso. Caravaggio created The Musicians to illustrate his support for the arts and the convergence of music and visual art. Additionally, Caravaggio uses his life-like folds to frame the piece. The folds and varying hues give the viewer a focal point, he establishes this with the figure wrapped in the red robe.

Caravaggio created a body of works with the musical motifs intended to be displayed in rehearsal halls and performance places. Cardinal Francesco del Monte held The Musicians in his home, where he invited musicians to perform. The painting features instruments specific and popular to the time. He illustrates four aspects of performance and composition: practice, analysis of the piece, nervousness ( as portrayed by the boy facing the audience) and luck/faith in the piece ( as depicted by cupid's presence). In addition, Caravaggio uses shadow to portray another aspect of performance in the Baroque period, opulence or special treatment for the talented. The artist shows this through the use of shadow hiding the grapes toward the side of the painting. In conclusion, Caravaggio depicts the complicated life of the performer. 
  • 7:00 AM


Michaelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595
By Bhux

Considered a masterpiece of the Italian Baroque period, Bacchus portrays the young god in an unusual way for the time. Caravaggio takes this unconventional approach to humanize the god by placing him in a comfortable and intimate setting. One of Caravaggio’s earlier works, it shows his interest in naturalism. The god is not shown with heavenly details or divine characteristics. Instead, he is a round-faced, rosy-cheeked, drunken teenager. He holds a strange, shallow wine glass in an extended hand as if to hand it to the viewer. Caravaggio utilizes a dark background comprised of earth tones instead of the traditional landscapes that were used at the time. The darkness contrasts sharply with the cascading white fabric that falls gently on Bacchus. He emphasizes the humanity of Bacchus instead of focusing on sumptuous ornamentation. Caravaggio chooses to add humanizing details to the scene by placing Bacchus in front of a rotting bowl of fruit and giving him dirty fingertips. The bowl of wilting fruit it thought to be a vanitas symbol. It is meant to show the fleetingness of time and futility of life on Earth. The bowl serves as a reminder for the viewer of the endless cycle of death and rebirth. By showing him in an earthly and hospitable form, Caravaggio welcomes the viewer into the scene to join Bacchus for drinks in the informal and warm room.

Caravaggio's use of mirrors and reflections is not immediately obvious in Bacchus. It is speculated that the artist sat in front of a mirror and used himself as the model for Bacchus. Bacchus holds his wine in his left hand in a position that would be hard to hold for someone who was right handed. Caravaggio painting his reflection in a piece of glass is one possible explanation to the mysterious gesture. On close inspection, one can also see Bacchus’s reflection within his glass of wine. Another strange detail of Bacchus is the alleged self-portrait on the glass in the bottom left corner that was not spotted until 1922. Immediately to the right of the circular light smudge is an extremely faint outline of a man. Art historians believe is was once clearly visible but after years of damaging restorations, it has nearly vanished. A layer of paint was added in one restoration which has left the portrait practically invisible to the naked eye. Using a special x-ray type machine, historians were able to see through several layers of paint to get a more clear image of the portrait. Through this technique, they were able to confirm rumors of a secret portrait hiding on the wine glass, but are still unable to be certain that it is of Caravaggio. Caravaggio takes his interest in reflections even further by painting a self portrait of him painting the subject in the reflection of the extended wine glass. However, I personally had a difficult time finding anything on the glass that resembled this. Still full of unanswered questions, Caravaggio’s Bacchus continues to mystify art historians and viewers alike even centuries after its completion.
  • 7:00 AM

The Calling of St. Matthew

Michelangelo de Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600

Michelangelo Merisi, now known to the world as Caravaggio, started his life as a nobody and ended it a murderer, overcome with disease and exhaustion, begging for a pardon from the Pope. However, the works created between the nobody and the dead fugitive are nothing short of miraculous. The Calling of St. Matthew and the other painting that accompanies it in the Contarelli Chapel became Caravaggio's tipping point. The church's Patron originally requested his first boss in the art world, Giuseppe Cesari, however, finding him overbooked, turned to the young Caravaggio for the commission instead. By the time he finished these incredible works, the entire art world of Rome had its eyes on Caravaggio. Even as a mere Art History student, it's obvious why.

It's characterized Baroque by the dramatic posing and theatrical composition, however, Caravaggio transcends that game. The Calling of St. Matthew exemplifies the most famous and unique facets of his work, the tenebrism, the modern dress, and, most of all, the depiction of real people carrying out the events of the Bible. Each person in this work lives, breathes, and moves before your eyes in unabashed realistic detail. Anyone who might look on this painting could see the events of Matthew's life in a way that may as well be in a small room down the street, not some magical far off land years and years ago. He brings religion to life.

It's a striking image. The beam of light spotlights the table of greedy tax collectors young and old, hunched over a table of money. Only the three on the right side have even noticed Jesus's presence; the other two still focus on the little metal pieces in front of them. But that beam of light slices through the shady room as directed by Jesus's Creation of Adam style finger at Matthew. That thin delicate halo is the only part of this work that couldn't truly be found in some crusty back room somewhere. It's mystical, but mystical within the bounds of reality which, for many, makes the image all the more powerful. The man in the middle looks at Jesus with a startled expression, pointing at himself as if to say "who me?" Or maybe he's pointing at one of the men to his side. There are many interpretations of this, but to me, his ambiguity seems intentional and serves to further his point. A sinner, a nondescript nobody, being called to God shows the world that important lives are not restricted to the people on top. Caravaggio argues quite convincingly with his painting that anybody can be called. The men around those tables may as well be you, me, a drunk passed out at a bar, or even the guy who cut you off in traffic. Caravaggio's focus in The Calling of St. Matthew is not on a blinding Jesus, glowing with the light or God and salvation, it is on the man, the everyday-Joe-type sinner experiencing a transformation. Jesus is merely a facilitator of God's will. It shows a world where we don't worship the man doing the blessing, we're worshiping the force and that force is streaming out to cover the layman. 

There's no doubt that Caravaggio had unparalleled talent and revolutionized religious painting, but the real question has to do with his own mental state. Is Caravaggio a religious man unable to control his vicious and lustful streaks, or is he a lover of anarchy taking advantage of the religious roots of painting to succeed with his gift? Are his brutally honest scenes in an effort to enhance the religious and force it into the lives of his viewers, or is it an artist's rebellion, throwing the barbarity of reality in the face of the religious? Could it be some combination of the two?

We'll likely never know the answers to these questions, but I would argue that the answers don't actually matter. Caravaggio can mean all of these things to different people, but so long as he's provoking something within his audience, he's doing his job as an artist. For me, I see people I know in The Calling of St. Matthew and it reminds me of the sermon on the mount.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
I know, says Caravaggio, and here they are, basking in God's light. And I must say, I find some part of that image incredibly comforting.

  • 7:00 AM

Judith Beheading Holofernes

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599

Although Judith appears to be afraid and uncertain in this rendition of Holofernes' beheading, Judith is a strong, independent, and charming woman, as is portrayed in the Book of Judith.  Judith, as a whole, embodies the power of the people in Israel and sneaks her way into the tent of Holofernes, a commanding general. She and her maid dress to catch the eye of all passing men, with the intention of getting caught by the Assyrian Border Patrol. Once captured, she makes up a credible story that she is a direct descendant to God, and slyly promises to lead Holofernes and his army through Jerusalem without fatalities. After waiting three days with the full trust from Assyrian army, Judith makes her way into Holofernes tent. All alone with him, she makes him drunk and steals his sword. With his own sword, Judith beheads Holofernes and takes down the enemy of Israel with her stunningly good looks. 

Caravaggio portrays this beheading in a way like no other artist has ever attempted. The blood-red drapes sprawled in the background, the old maid holding the bag for Holofernes' head, and the blood spouting from Holofernes' neck captures the exact moment in which Judith took down the most crucial general in the Assyrian army. Judith's face as she beheads Holofernes looks almost as if she is saying "that looks like it is going to leave a mark" as she drags Holofernes' sword through his thick neck. The black darkness surrounding all light parts of the painting leaves the viewer curious for what is in the tent. Caravaggio, like most of his paintings, illuminates only the essentials in his masterpieces, and in this painting, the viewers eyes are drawn right to the pain in Holofernes' face and Judith bright white dress. 
  • 7:00 AM


Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597 

Though most are familiar with the story of ill-fated Medusa, I must retell the story because even though her myth continues through verbal telling, as I read about her myth I must admit that there are details that no one has mentioned to me before, and if you only know Medusa through what you have heard then you might feel the same after reading this.

Medusa was one of Phorcy, a sea god, and Ceto, his sister-wife's, three daughters. Medusa was said to have luscious golden hair. She was also a priestess of Athena with a supposed life devoted to celibacy. After being enticed by Poseidon, she left her vows behind and married him. Medusa abandonment of her vows is the reason we have the Medusa we now infamously know and love. To punish her, Athena turned each and every wavy golden lock of hair that Poseidon so admired into a venomous snake, and her once gentle, affectionate eyes turned into "blood-shot, furious orbs, which excited fear and disgust in the mind of the on-looker." Discernibly Medusa was appalled and not very pleased with her new look, and it's said that in despair she fled from her home to Africa, where as she wandered restlessly a young snaked dropped from her head. This, according the to Ancient Greeks is why Africa became the hotbed for venomous reptiles. Medusa continued to turn everything she gazed upon into to stone until conclusively Perseus put her out of her misery by chopping her head off therefore killing her.

Something I have realized while looking at Caravaggio paintings is how well he is at showing emotion and motion through 2-D objects such as paintings. He is also really good at detail as well from the outside rim of this circular background to the very detailed snakes and splattered blood. Another thing that amazes me about Caravaggio paintings is how modern and clean they look. The emotion being displayed on Medusa's face is beyond amazing.
  • 7:00 AM

Leda and the Swan

Pontormo, Leda and the Swan, 1512

The influence of this painting comes from a Greek myth. In the painting the god Zeus is represented by the swan. Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped Leda. In some versions it is said that he merely seduced Leda. Though in most versions that is not the case because Leda bore four children. According to many versions of the story Zeus raped Leda on the same night she slept with her husband Tyndareus, king of Sparta. As shown in the painting Leda laid two eggs from which the children hatched from. Helen and Polydueces are children of Zeus while Castor and Clytemnestra are children of Tyndareus. 

This painting by Pontormo is very similar to the one painted by Leonardo da Vinci, who was one of Pontormo's great influences and mentors. Although da Vinci's version of the painting is significantly better than Pontormo's they still share similarities. In Leonardo da Vinci's version there is more life and livelihood versus Pontormo's dull and harder colors and tones. There is more life in the background and there emotion and movement within the subjects of Leonardo de Vinci's painting. Something that is interesting is that in his painting he only accounts for two of Leda's children which I would assume are the children of Zeus. Pontormo also did not carry out the proportions of Leda correctly. Her body is in a sort of triangular shape, and it almost looks as if he didn't fully include and paint all her supposedly visible body parts. 
  • 7:00 AM

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Lavinia Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c.1600

Picture it, biblical Israel.

The Israelis are in the midst of a war with the Assyrians. Bethulia, a town in the little narrow strip towards Jerusalem, is under siege. For 34 days, just over a month, this town has been taken hostage by the brutal, dominating Assyrians, lead by the horrifying General Holofernes. The people of Bethulia who started off strong and passionate are now exhausted and debilitated, growing even more so by the day. They're five days out from surrender, unable to continue. They pray for divine intervention but in their state faith in their success is dwindling. What they need is a miracle, or a gorgeous, badass, jewish lady.

This is the story of Judith and Holofernes, one of the Bible's best stories of women heroes. Lavinia Fontana, one of the first significant female artists, was certainly a fan of such stories. Though she was most famous as the first female a court painter in the male-dominated public art sphere, she painted many mythological and biblical paintings. Her focus in most of these works was the woman's perspective, like in Noli Mi Tangere and The Assumption of the Virgin. Her religious works show the emotion and passion of the women in the biblical world and their importance in the stories. Therefore it is natural for an artist with such focuses to create her own version one of the most frequently painted biblical stories of the non-Jesus variety.

Judith, a notably beautiful widow, is the hero Bethulia needed. She hears of the plan to surrender and absolutely refuses to backdown. She will not tolerate an oppression of her people, so she concocts a plan. She adorns herself in beautiful jewels and dons a stunning and provocative outfit, transcending her already stunning beauty, before leaving her city behind. She enters the Assyrian camp and claims to be a deserter with information on how to bring down the Jews once and for all. Holofernes is completely taken by her. She is invited to feast with him and she spouts all manor of lies about the defenses in Bethulia. By the end of the night, Holofernes is set on taking her to bed. Upon reaching his chambers, however, he is so inebriated from an evening of feasting that he is nearly defenseless. Judith takes the mighty general's sword from it's scabbard and uses it to slice off the enemy's head with two strong strikes. Her servant rushes in to collect the severed head and the two disappear over the horizon of the camp long before any of the Assyrians discover what has happened. Upon arriving in Bethulia again, she presents the head to her people, who rally immediately, revived to their own strength and proceed to chase the Assyrians out of their land and far from Bethulia.

Fontana paints herself as Judith, clad in a sensual blood red, and all the adornments of the original story. The head of Holofernes sinks into the shadows, far from the focus of the painting. All of the emphasis is on the strength of Judith. Rather showing her as a bloodthirsty woman hacking off the head of a general as is seen in most other renditions of the story, Fontana paints her regal and put together, showing the power of the feminine, and holding the head as a symbol that her people will not back down.
  • 7:00 AM

Feast in the House of Levi

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573
By Bhux 

To the modern viewer, Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi shows another artist's contemporary rendition of the last supper. However, the controversy surrounding the work is not obvious. Considered blasphemous in it's time, Feast in the House of Levi was created during the height of the Inquisition and nearly costed Veronese his career and his life.

Veronese created the work in 1573 to replace a work by Titian lost in a fire for the Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Shortly after its creation, the Roman Catholic Inquisition launched an investigation into the subjects of the work. The church attempted to charge Veronese with the serious charge of hearsay and summoned him for an interrogation. Complaints about the unconventional work were numerous. Jesus Christ, in the center, is hardly the subject of the painting. Instead, the viewer is drawn to the colorful characters that join Christ at the feast. The church disliked the dwarfs, gluttons, parrots, drunks, German mercenaries, jesters, and even the dog in the foreground. Mary Magdalene is no where to be found and strange men in turbans peak from around the column. The church was upset by the lack of religious images and the secular themes. In comparison to Da Vinci's The Last Supper, which set the standard for how suppers should be depicted, the image seemed unholy and blasphemous. 

In Da Vinci's work, Christ and his disciples are shown clearly and unadorned. It is a realistic rendition of the event while Veronese places the supper in 16th century Venice. Because Venice was a crossroads of trade and globalization at this time, the lively figures in the work come from all over the globe. For these reasons, Veronese's rendition quickly stirred up controversy and brought him in front of the Catholic court.

In the transcript of Veronese's interrogation, we see his sass and bitterness that he has towards church. Veronese is questioned thoroughly about his intentions until he stops the questioning and states that "It is necessary here that I should say a score of words." After receiving permission to talk he continues, "We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants." The interrogation continues, 

Q. And who are really the persons whom you admit to have been present at this Supper?

A. I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.

Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?

A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

Veronese argues that as an artist he is entitled to creative justice and can adorn his paintings as he wishes. Commissioned simply to paint a supper, he believes he has the right to depict it as he pleases. He fills the large space with characters of his imagination to provide an unconventional rendition of a celebrated event. He argues that he wasn't told how to adorn it, so he did it as he pleased. After the trial, Veronese was ordered to replace the dog with Mary Magdalene within three months. Instead, he changed the title from The Last Supper to Feast in the House of Levi to keep his artistic integrity intact and spite the church. The issue, technically unresolved, was not brought up again.

  • 7:00 AM

Visione della Croce

Image result for adlocutio giulio romano
 Giulio Romano, Visione della Croce, 1520-1524

Giulio Romano was scrambling for control after Raphael's death in 1520. A well-oil machine before his death, Raphael's workshop was in shambles. Artists were fighting to take control of the workshop, unable to work together. Commissions were slipping away at the same time as people doubted whether the workshop could keep producing high quality works without the master to lead them. Romano and the workshop had to prove themselves if they wanted to stay in business.

A commission came in from the court of Leo X for the Sala di Constantino. But they had some competition this time around. Michelangelo, Raphael's rival, was supporting another artist, Sebastiano del Piombo, to get the commission. Fortunately, Romano and the workshop were able to procure some of Raphael's drafts and get the commission. The artists of the workshop used some the original drawings, but most of the art was created from under Romano's influence, rather than Raphael.

The painting is scrambled, figures melting into each other, and a general chaos reigning over the scene. Romano's figures are in the classical type, bulging muscles and open body forms. His propensity for including the mythological is also in the painting, seen in the foreground where a little troll smashes a vase. Romano's theme of Roman history combined with a more present theme of Christianity extends to many of his other works as well.
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