… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.… Matthew 25:35-36
A Caravaggio masterpiece on mercy calls to Pope Francis across the centuries
(RNS) If Pope Francis wanted a single image to illustrate the special Year of Mercy that is the current focus of his ministry and, indeed, the theme at the heart of his pontificate, he could do no better than choosing an underappreciated masterpiece by the thrilling Italian artist known as Caravaggio.
In fact, the 400-year-old canvas, an altarpiece in a Naples church titled “The Seven Acts of Mercy,” may represent the perfect combination of the man — or, rather, two men — and the moment: a brilliant painter with a scurrilous reputation who was striving for redemption, and a popular pontiff struggling to make the church more welcoming to outcasts.
Why does this painting call across the centuries?
I invite you to read the entire essay posted by Religion News Service on March 30, 2016 and learn more about Caravaggio, this remarkable painting, the theme of mercy, and how this painting (and Caravaggio himself) calls us to act with mercy and live with hope. ~Fr. Dan
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Oil on Canvas, 1601, Caravaggio, 1571-1610
Like other artists who became known by the place of their origin, Michelangelo Merisi was called “Caravaggio,” the Italian city of his birth. After studying art in Milan, Caravaggio went to Rome at age twenty and, after three years of poverty, his fortune changed when a few of his paintings were bought by the influential Cardinal del Monte; this led to other important commissions.
During the Renaissance in Rome, heroic events were painted and subjects seemed to exist in a lofty idealized classical world – an “art” world. Artists of the century that followed painted in the “manner” of the Renaissance but seemed to lack a guiding direction; often virtuosity was substituted for substance. By the time Caravaggio went to Rome almost a hundred years had passed since the High Renaissance and he was neither smothered by its idealism nor enamored with the exaggerations of the Mannerists. Instead, he brought naturalism into his work. His models often were selected from earthy low life people of the streets and Caravaggio painted them as they were (dirty feet, fingernails, and all). Prettiness did not interest him.
Caravaggio’s “Conversion” depicts Paul as a young armored soldier who had been traveling by horseback on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus. The painting gives us the moment a blinding light struck Paul and caused him to fall to the ground. In this unusual arrangement of images, the upper portion of the painting is dominated by nothing more than the body of Paul’s horse. A companion, who is mostly in shadow, has a hand on its bridle. In the center are numerous legs; portions of which are highlighted by the intense light and Paul is at the very bottom lying helpless. When an artist is organizing a composition, the principal subject is placed usually in a prominent position but Caravaggio’s painting limits the physical space given to Paul. About two-thirds of the way down, a foreshortened Paul is flat on his back. His sword is off to one side, his helmet has fallen from his head and his arms are raised as though he is confused by the suddenness of what happened. Caravaggio’s use of extreme contrast keeps our attention in the foreground; there is no middle ground or background and we are not able to enter visually the dark areas of the painting. He keeps our focus directly on the event.
Caravaggio’s genius was in identifying with his subjects and in having an ability to communicate the feelings they were experiencing.
In his personal life, Caravaggio was in constant trouble with authorities and was not a person you would want to meet. He was in arguments and brawls frequently, and after one of his fights the person he struck died. He fled from place to place but high regard for his art brought commissions and he painted masterpieces of dramatic impact even as he ran from the law.
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him.
The Church remembers Saint Matthew every year on September 21. This year a new layer was added to this remembrance. In an interview with Pope Francis posted and printed on September 19th, the Pope talked about his own calling:
Pope Francis continues his reflection and says, jumping to another topic: “I do not know Rome well. I know a few things. These include the Basilica of St. Mary Major; I always used to go there. I know St. Mary Major, St. Peter’s…but when I had to come to Rome, I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio. “That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.”
Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”