Saved in a Nick of Timelessness: The “Real” In Caravaggio’s Realism

by Donald Kuspit

The ultimate defense is to deny time, to live in the present, or to believe in life after death, timeless eternity, a land where there shall be time no longer.

                      —Peter Hartocollis, Time and Timelessness: The Varieties of Temporal Experience1

Mystery and realism are by no means contradictory.

—Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies2

Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599–1600  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Is there anything new to be said about Caravaggio (1571–1610), considering all that Walter Friedlaender has written about him?3 Friedlaender’s magisterial Caravaggio Studies includes a catalogueraisonné, reprints every known document and biography, reproduces every confirmed work, critically examines the existing information about his religious beliefs and violent behavior, describes in exhaustive detail the various artistic milieux in which he worked and lived (above all Rome), and convincingly argues that his innovative naturalism is not as artistically “coarse” and “vulgar” as it has been said to be by those who prefer the artificial and aristocratic. Nor, as Friedlaender shows by way of numerous comparisons of Caravaggio’s works with those of his predecessors and followers, was he merely interested in startling and witty “luminaristic effects,” for example, the “willful excitement produced by a candle or a lantern so common among the later tenebrosi especially in the North.” Caravaggio was “materially and psychologically” in an artistic class of his own.

His works invariably have a “strong psychological impact” and show “an extraordinary capacity for representing material values of texture.” He adds “corporeality to his figures by modeling their volumes in concert with the light” and uses “colors and color relations [to] pull his figures and objects forward toward the spectator and give them weight and substance.” “The opposition of dark and light…has a powerful dramatic effect,” especially because the “light comes from outside and transforms all reality”—all of nature, including human nature—suggesting the light’s “supernatural quality.” His “social realism” was unusual and unwanted in the Italian art world of his day, but its religious value was recognized by Roman Catholicism, in the person of his patron, Cardinal del Monte. Caravaggio’s proletarian imagery, influenced by the Christian populism of San Filippo Neri, his contemporary, was the artistic answer to the Counter-Reformation. The works in San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo had a way of “bringing the pathos of miracles closer and mak[ing] them…immediate to the understanding of the simple man.” It thus accomplished what Luther’s translation of the Latin Bible into vulgar German did: it made the word of God accessible to the unwashed masses—like those in Caravaggio’s visionary pictures. It made them direct witnesses, indeed, contemporaries, of Christ and the saints. No longer did one have to be a rich patron of the Roman Church to stand in their presence, if only in a painting, but one could be a poor humble person. The translation of the Christian Bible into everyday language was an act of treason and rebellion against the Roman Church, even a revolutionary attempt to overthrow it, for its priests alone had the privilege of reading Latin and thus communicating Christianity’s message to the people. They were superior to the people, who were inferior because they could not read the Bible, and thus could never have the same “authoritative” understanding of the Word of God that the priests did. The people’s understanding would always be as simple as they were—a dramatically fleeting intuitive intimation of the gospel truth rather than the diligent, scholarly, intellectual unpacking of its complex meanings by learned priests. The people were too low to have a higher understanding of Christianity—which is why they needed Caravaggio’s low art to understand it, however little serious understanding it afforded.

The Christian Bible had become the private property of Catholic priests,and Luther’s popularization or publicizing of it stripped them of the social power their exclusive possession gave them. One could finally dispense with the elitist intermediary of the priest—the religious intelligentsia who claimed to be closer to God and Christ and the saints than other people, so close as to embody their spirit and thus be their representatives on earth. It has been said that the translation of the sacred Bible into profane language is the critical core of Protestantism—Luther’s most radical protest against Catholicism’s dominance of Christianity. Caravaggio did the same thing, wittingly, I would argue, for he hated the priests and their power and pretentions, not to say pomp and circumstance, as much as Luther did. They, and with them Catholicism, were out of touch with the people—and with that, for both Luther and Caravaggio, the human core of Christianity. Both returned Christianity to its roots in the people, in human experience. Both took it out of the hands of the priests and made it popular and emotionally appealing and exciting, Luther by translating it into a verbal vernacular, Caravaggio by translating it into a visual vernacular. 

For whatever emotional reasons, Caravaggio by nature was a rebellious, abrasive character—“difficult to control,” as Friedlaender writes, a “strange” personality, adding that Cardinal del Monte “characterize[d] him as a ‘cervello stravagantissimo’”—in other words, a born protestant and rebel, destined to protest and revolt against the existing order of society and art, which got him into trouble with the powers that controlled and managed both. He was an unorthodox Protestant-type character living in an orthodox Catholic society, which no doubt added to the deeper conflicts that made him difficult and finally openly violent—anti-social to the extent of committing murder. The contrasts of dark and light that pervade Caravaggio’s paintings have “symbolic qualities,” Friedlaender writes. Above all, they symbolize the unresolved conflicts in Caravaggio’s psyche, expressively enacted as his rebellious protest against mannerism and classicism. His “ability to fill his characters with a sensitive and stirring inner life, without classicistic idealization or manneristic abstraction, is one of the basic qualities of Caravaggio’s art,” Friedlaender remarks. Much less obvious but even more crucial for an understanding of the motivation of his art, was his antagonism toward the traditional priesthood that ran Catholicism. It is worth noting that the so-called perverse look of many of the seductive male figures in his early works has been connected to his homosexuality, but it is also a protest against the social dominance of heterosexuality, whatever its psychobiological determinants.

Friedlaender regards Caravaggio’s paintings as the beginning of modern “magic realism”—their influence on the development of painting reaches to the present, he suggests. He thinks the magic resides in their light, but neglects to note that Caravaggio’s light, however strong and bright, makes a sudden, unexpected appearance, theatrically spotlighting or highlighting certain details of the figures, while leaving the scene as a whole in the dark. (It has been said that Caravaggio would have made a great cinematographer.) The light is uncanny, momentary and peculiarly unreal, however starkly realized: it will lose its strange intensity and fade away into complete darkness, as though it had never appeared, once it has opened the inner eyes of those upon whom it shines. It is a timeless light, intruding in a nick of time to save human beings from themselves and their mundane, often violent world. Again and again, Caravaggio memorializes the moments of conversion and martyrdom, short-lived moments with a lasting effect on life. The light blinds St. Paul, but changes his life forever, and the light falls on St. Matthew, changing his life forever. Caravaggio’s paintings are revelations, but they also invite the viewer to change for the emotional better. Paul, full of murderous hatred before his conversion, becomes full of love afterward, and Matthew, obsessed with money and serving the State before Christ calls him, becomes obsessed with God and serves Christ afterward. Caravaggio’s figures—and the ordinary people who see his paintings without fully understanding their artfulness—may be lowborn, but they become higher beings when they see and are reborn in the light that invades the darkness in the paintings, a darkness with as strong a presence as the light. It is the Gnostic tension between the light and the darkness that gives his paintings their power and poignancy.

I am arguing that Caravaggio shows the timeless invading the temporal world—the timeless that informs and haunts it in his early still lifes, and becomes manifest as blinding pure light in the religious works. It is contact with timeless light—being touched by its incomprehensible presence—that transforms lower beings into higher beings by giving them a sense of mission.The light may give body to the figure, as it does to the central executioner figure in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599–1600). The light suggests that he is as sacred as the saint he is about to murder. They are as necessary to and inseparable from one another as the angel and St. Teresa in Bernini’s sculpture. 

The light is associated with the figure of Christ, in The Calling of St. Matthew (1599–1600), where it has a more striking appearance, and appears above him, as though autonomous, suggesting that it emanates from the Holy Spirit rather than him. It signifies the disruptive reality of the timeless, indeed, the saving grace of timelessness, always oddly timely and redemptive, however unexpected and inexplicable. Caravaggio’s figures are actors in a modernized mystery play, but the real mystery is the staging of the timeless, hyperactive, insistent light, focusing on figures to give them a timeless aura—an aura that denies they will ever be lost and die in the darkness of time.

Caravaggio St. Matthew and the Angel, 1602  San Luigi dei Francesi, RomeMany of Caravaggio’s paintings have a vector-like character. His figures stare at each other without blinking, the eyes of each holding their own while fixated on the eyes of the other. Straight lines emanate from their hypnotic eyes, meeting like dueling swords. The figures are implicitly antagonists—certainly at odds, estranged if not entirely strangers to each other. So are we and the figure when it fixes us with its stare, as though holding us fast in its consciousness at the expense of our own. Will their eyes turn each other into stone, as the Medusa’s eyes did, or will they see into each other’s souls, eyes being the soul’s windows, and silently transmit what is in the soul of the one into the soul of the other? Their eyes form a communicative bridge between them, but the bridge is straight and narrow, like the proverbial path to God, and requires steady nerves to traverse. Eyes are the key to Caravaggio’s pictures, the small actors within the grand scene, the core and remnant of consciousness in the figures, programmed to act in a ritualistic way, unconscious of the consequences of their behavior. We must put ourselves in the position of their eyes to share their experience. Seeing through their eyes, we see how extraordinary seemingly ordinary reality is.

The eyes dramatically meet in explosive insight—St. Matthew and the Angel (1602) is a clear example—even as they continue to oppose and resist each other. A diagonal line of force sometimes mediates between the contradictory lines, even as it marks their opposition. The reconciliation of opposites is never guaranteed, suggesting a permanent state of war between them. Caravaggio never did reconcile with the world, as his constant masochistic provocation of it—his penchant for getting himself in trouble and eventual paranoid relationship with it—indicates. His art and behavior were equally troubling and violent, and his religious pictures dwell on the emotional violence and turmoil in paranoid suffering, the suffering caused by conversion and celebrated as the necessary route to salvation in martyrdom. Even the early secular pictures, which hint of sexual pleasure, including the voyeuristic pleasure of penetrating looking—I am thinking of the objects in the still lives as well as the “pagan” figures (both touched, even sensualized by timelessness)—seem to intimate future violence. Cupid, after all, had a bow and arrow. An adolescent boy smiling coyly, the Cupid in Amor Vincit Omnia (1602) holds a few arrows in his right hand, perhaps suggesting the number of times he’s been sexually aroused and penetrated, suggesting the violence of love.

The diagonal sadistically cuts through the picture like a sharp knife, acknowledging the deep divisions in it. The only thing that keeps the picture from splitting into opposing halves—even fragmenting into dark and light details—is the close grouping of the figures. They are often tangled together in a bizarre togetherness, a sort of reluctant, unconsummated, forced intimacy. Even seemingly casual, friendly gatherings are disconcertingly tense. Caravaggio’s realism has an abstract underpinning: his reality is inherently abstract. Abstraction is not forced on it, as in Mannerism, but is natural to it, or part of its nature, its dynamics. Caravaggio subtly brings out its abstract features, revealing their intricate dynamics through the dynamic interplay of his figures. The structure of their action conveys the abstract construction of reality. Caravaggio may be a naturalist, as has been repeatedly said, but he is a naturalist who sees beneath the surface of nature to its inner structure.

Inwardness, in fact, is always at issue in Caravaggio’s realism—interior reality as well as exterior reality. Paul’s blindness suggests that he is looking inward, having an inner experience, a profound emotional experience, which is what the closed eyes of Christ in The Supper at Emmaus (1602) also convey. When the outward-looking eye is inactive, the inward-looking eye is very active. Not many figures are privileged to look inward in Caravaggio’s pictures—although all are struggling to do so, and struggling to look inside those they look at (except, no doubt, those sinners busily and unself-consciously martyring saints, which reminds me of Jung’s remark that unconsciousness is the greatest sin). But those that do have the privilege of being saved from their worst impulses.

Is it absurd to say that Caravaggio’s inward-looking eye is the antithesis of Alberti’s outward-looking eye, the eye that is the cornerstone of Alberti’s pyramid-like construction of perspective? Is it an attempt to overthrow Renaissance objectivity, a privileging of introspection over observation, a way of emphasizing internal reality at the expense of external reality? Caravaggio’s realism seems to strike a balance between them, even integrate them, but I think it is ultimately more about internal reality—trying to fathom and express inner life—than about external reality. It uses the external to convey the internal, suggesting that it anticipates Symbolism.

Alberti’s symmetrical pyramid rationally structures the perception of exterior reality; Caravaggio’s major pictures are asymmetrically split, conveying the irrationally conflicted character of interior reality: Caravaggio’s own irrationality and conflicts (a sinner not so eager to be a saint, but admiring them), and the peculiar irrationality of using Protestant realism in the service of Catholic visionary idealism. I am saying that Caravaggio has put Alberti’s static objective eye to dynamic subjective use, giving it a certain inner necessity. Caravaggio gives the old idea of the eye as a window—and mirror—of the soul new credibility by secularizing the religious idea of the soul as divided against itself, and, more pointedly, by showing that it is not in control of the body that houses it, to play on Freud’s idea that the ego is not master in its own home. 

Caravaggio Medusa, c. 1599, Galleria Degli Uffizi, Florence

Caravaggio’s eye sees the disorder of the soul as well as the order of nature. He is a participant observer of inner life, illuminating its murkiness with searchlight vision. The startled eyes of Medusa (c. 1599) are full of anxious horror, but Caravaggio looks into them without turning into cold stone, for he sees them coldly reflected in the mirror of his psychologically and socially realistic art, giving him the courage necessary to cut her head off, as Perseus did. Can one say that the Medusa’s shocked, insane, traumatized look indicates that Caravaggio had insight into his own insanity? The work is supposedly a self-portrait.

Art was really Caravaggio’s religion, as it was for many nineteenth-century artists. Christianity was an occasion for art, and he seems ambivalent about it. Many of his works seem to raise doubts about its promise of immortality, if his focus on the suffering and death of Christ and his followers is any clue. Salvation is uncertain, however consoling it may be to worship the Virgin on one’s knees, as he shows the famously barefooted low-born doing in one painting. But, in the end, art was unable to save him from himself. If Caravaggio can be said to identify with Paul and Matthew, it is not clear, from the paintings, that Paul awoke to a new life—we see him fallen, not risen like Christ—or that Matthew heeded Christ’s call: who me, he seems to be asking—is he pointing his finger at himself or at his neighbor? Both Paul and Matthew are forced to convert, suggesting that they don’t do so of their own free will—the free will that Caravaggio seemed to confuse with his willfulness, his lack of self-control, not to say his readiness to pick a fight and provoke others. His paintings are indeed provocations. They pick a fight with the Catholic Church, the familiar idealizing kind of religious art and the humble worshipper they supposedly address. But then Christ was a kind of provocateur, taking on the Pharisees and the Romans. Caravaggio may have identified with him and his suffering—the price he paid for his provocations, his challenge to the ruling, upper-class order—and, perhaps most crucially, because of Christ’s humble origins and the fact that he chose humble people to be his apostles, and addressed his message to humble people. Caravaggio’s art is haunted by class conflict: the soldier Paul and the tax collector Matthew, while not as lower class as the peasants worshipping the Virgin in the Madonna of Loreto (c. 1604) were originally members of the lower class—a lower spiritual class, one might add, than Christ. Their conversion involves a radical change in class, a social as well as spiritual revolution. Originally negligible pedestrian types, they became religious leaders, all the more important because they were personally chosen by Christ, making them the Christian elect and elite.

If Medusa is a self-portrait, she suggests that Caravaggio was suffering from a serious narcissistic injury. She has lost her head, and her snakes are so many headaches. Her fate suggests that Caravaggio realized he would die violently and shamefully, but his foresight didn’t enable him to change his ways, to control himself and his hostility. Nor did it make him a martyr to art and religion. It can be argued that he identified with the aggressor rather than the victim in his paintings—the murderous central figure in The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, rather than the less prominent and fallen saint; the would-be murderer Abraham, wielding a knife, in The Sacrifice of Isaac; the figures violently raising the cross in The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601); the doubting St. Thomas in The Incredulity of St. Thomas, aggressively pointing his finger at the wound in Christ’s side, as though about to stick it in the wound.

Caravaggio’s art was more realistic and prescient than he knew, which is why it remains timeless, despite the fact that he had become a social pariah—a violent criminal on the run, refusing to accept punishment for his criminal behavior, suggesting that he felt no guilt and remorse—at the time of his death, and perhaps at the height of his imaginative power and artistry. But, having alienated his last patron, the head of the Knights of Malta, he may have lost his faith in art—his belief that art would rescue him, for faith in Christ does not seem to have rescued his disciples from their fate, but tested it in extremis. The question for Caravaggio seems to have been whether they passed the test and went to heaven, which has nothing to do with the fact that his paintings are heavenly despite their hellishness. Realistic art is sacred art when it conveys the mystery of eternity and the constancy of suffering simultaneously. Donald Kuspit is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He has written more than twenty books, including Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (2000) and The End of Art (2004).


1. Peter Hartocollis, Time and Timelessness: The Varieties of Temporal Experience: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry (New York: International Universities Press, 1983), p. 227.

2. Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies [1955] (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 121. All subsequent quotations from Friedlaender are from this book.

3. The 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death was commemorated with an important exhibition at Rome’s Quirinale (February 18–June 13, 2010).

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2011, Volume 28, Number 1