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Caravaggio—paintings that pushed the boundaries of a new society

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A new exhibition explores the work of 17th century artist Caravaggio and his followers—and the turbulent period that produced it, writes?Julie Sherry
Issue 2526
Caravaggio’s painting Boy bitten by a lizard captured the pleasure—and pain—of everyday life

Caravaggio’s painting Boy bitten by a lizard captured the pleasure—and pain—of everyday life

You’re hit instantly by an enveloping rich, dark atmosphere as you enter Beyond Caravaggio. It’s the incredible power of the intimacy, violence and vivacity characteristic of his style.

The exhibition explores the influence of the 17th century Italian artist. It is fascinating for how it draws out Caravaggio’s impact and influence by exploring his works alongside those of his followers.

What defines these paintings as “Caravaggesque”, is clear. It’s the use of dark and light in elevating, ­celebrating and exposing the richness of human drama.

Looking on many of them the first thought is “that’s Caravaggio”. But the moment you set eyes on an actual Caravaggio, you know the difference.

The entrancing darkness of his Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness steals the final room.

Caravaggio depicts the pleasure and pain of human existence brilliantly.

Boy Bitten By a Lizard captures the moment a boy is bitten while ­indulging in luscious fruits.

His face contorts in a sudden grimace, the flesh of his shoulder exposed and a flower in his hair.

There’s a room of painters who developed a light source as the focus in a painting. The presence of the candle instantly brings Caravaggio to mind, yet he never painted a candle in any of his works.

Almost more ground-breaking is the space given to seemingly unworthy subjects—ordinary people living life—and the intimacy of it.


Caravaggio’s Rome was a place of contradictions and hypocrisies. In his short, violent life he took the sin, indulgence and drama of Rome’s backstreets and brought it into his paintings.

Caravaggio’s work is a bold expression of the tensions that were thrown up a century before him.

The period in which he worked was pushing up against the fetters of the feudal ideology, breaking through the limits of what was deemed worthy of painting.

Bearing that in mind, Caravaggio’s works strike you as all the more bold. Some of his followers used his method to make sharper points.

Artemisia Gentileschi—an accomplished artist at a time when women were denied any independent existence—is worth a mention.

As someone who fled Rome after a gruelling sexual violence trial, her work screams out against the injustice and misogyny of her times.

Her Susanna and The Elders portrays a woman caught bathing naked by two men leaning threateningly, leering over her. Her discomfort, fear and pain as she tries to cover herself are evident on her face.

It is a powerful and deeply uncomfortable painting.

She is accusing and defying the world around her.

The exhibition is £16. But it is a powerful display of works that throw up ­fascinating ­questions about the world that sprung them.

Beyond Caravaggio,
National Gallery, London WC2N 5DN. Until 15 January


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