Can an object really ever be out of place? Is it not us who are out of sorts when we find something misplaced? And that jolt which occurs as the mind fails to put it where we think it should be is the sensation of liberation as we discover and think anew.
So it is with an art exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery. As I write, it is about to close its doors for the last time, allowing the paintings it brought together to return to their more accustomed surroundings. Most are familiar, some because they are burdened with the title of masterpieces, and several because they did have far to travel to take up their accommodation in the Sainsbury Wing: those exhibits are ones which are more often to be found resting upstairs against the walls of the main gallery. But what their temporary residence allowed was to see them afresh and it is about one of those I write now.
It is easy to understand why Adam de Coster’s ‘A Man singing by candlelight’ was thought appropriate for an exhibition named after Caravaggio. It is a bravura display of chiaroscuro in the style we relate to the Roman artist and to Georges de la Tour.
I must have passed it several times on previous visits to the National but something about its positioning in the exhibition arrested me. Perhaps it was the fact that, even in comparison with the other candlelit scenes displayed in the room, there is something audacious or downright odd about this painting. How many early seventeenth-century artists would be willing to place at the very centre of their picture what, in effect, is black space? If it were a century later, we might compare it with the blank pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As it is we are more likely to ignore it and to concentrate on the artistry of the light thrown on the man’s face. We might even consider the invisible music book as an interruption or a blemish. What, on the contrary, struck me on this occasion was how that blackness unlocks the painting, how its illegibility helps us read it.
What, it seemed to me, standing before it in the over-crowded room (more on that another time) was that it spoke of an inverted world, a place in which we are the shadows. We are invited in, encouraged to imagine that we are there before the musician — for who else could be his audience? — but also kept at a distance. We are on the other side, where the light does not fall and where what we assume are words and notes is blackness. What cave is this we inhabit? One where we are incapable of reading — oh, but surely that is precisely what we are doing, explicating the painting as if its surface was a text. Except, of course, that we, in effect, are attempting to read in dark; we are in the wrong position to dicipher fully. So, let’s draw nearer and enter the painting’s world. But if we try that, our own penumbral status would melt in the warmth of the candle; we would lose our place. We believe — we have to believe — that we are more real than the image we are facing. After all, we have our senses. We know there is, in truth, no book and no space, just daubs of paint on the canvas. We can proudly say we have eyes to see. We can see, at the heart of the picture, precisely nothing. Is that achievement? Or is that the beam in our eye which makes us see absence? We also have ears to hear but do we hear the music? If we do not, is that the painting’s failing or ours?
I arrived in Rome last night for a period of research. So this morning was my first chance on this trip to see the city in daylight. Rome had prepared itself for me: it woke up and put on its blue sky (gently streaked with plumes of high white cloud); it met me not in any fancy dress, but (as I like it) wearing in its lived-in statuesque beauty; it felt fresh as it closed in and breathed on my cheek. You may tell that I am ecstatic with the splendour of it all.
An added, perhaps meaner, joy of my walk was relishing how little of the morning could be caught in photographs. No camera could capture the dappled delight of the sunlight speckling the water streaming from the fountains above the Galleria d’Arte Moderna; it could not comprehend the haze that veils the morning panorama of the city from the Pincio; it could not record faithfully the quality of the light giving each leaf its individuality. The camera never fails to lie. There are virtues in virtuality but the pleasures of reality are vertiginous.
It was after I had walked down from the Pincio to the Piazza del Popolo and entered Santa Maria del Popolo that I encountered the injunction to sum this up: ‘no photo’ is printed in majuscules on A4 paper stuck on the both sides of the chapel containing Caravaggio’s two canvases. There are particular reasons, of course, to avoid photography of those objects in that confined space. But, there, in that holy place, a sin is committed nearly as bad as trigger-happy-snapping. For the price of a small coin, the walls are lit with an intense electric light that floods each of the pictures. It reveals every detail of the design: the folds of the rich drapery of Saul-becoming-Paul, the strain on the right arm of the cross-maker as he lifts the perplexed Peter off the ground. Yet, at the same time, something seems lost through this uncompromising revelation: it somehow evens out the pictures; it flattens them. Was this how Caravaggio intended them to be seen, a pool of light lapping around each element? We tend to like our seventeenth-century music played in ‘period’ style nowadays; is it not time we went in for some period viewing of our own? I waited for the light to switch off and gazed then at a different image of a fallen Saul, in some sort of harmony with the flank of the horse above him. It was something more mystical, less comprehensible – as a miracle should have been. I prayed silently for a few more moments of half-light, but the clatter of the coin falling into the box sent not a soul out of Purgatory, but the soul out of the paintings before us. No photo, yes, but no aggressive artificial lighting either, please.
Last week saw me at the Society for Renaissance Studies International Conference at Trinity College, Dublin. It was a successful event with many stimulating papers – I particularly enjoyed the session on Natural Disasters organised by Trevor Dean of Roehampton. However good a conference, one always finds some time to escape and explore and, though I have been to Dublin several times to work with the manuscripts and teach palaeography workshops, I have never visited the National Gallery, to which I made a pilgrimage on the Friday, only to be lured back there the next day.
It is an interesting collection with some striking images but the one which held me under its spell was Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ. Caravaggio has the ability to see afresh, to alter – in every sense – the viewer’s perspective. When I am in Rome, each time I try to see the Conversion of Saint Paul in Santa Maria del Popolo; the Taking of Christ has the same arresting quality.
The action depicts the moment that Judas kisses Jesus, but hardly has his lips touched his master’s cheek than the soldier grabs his prisoner by the shoulder. There is a powerful dynamism to the picture, a sense of hurtling motion that pushes the subjects off-centre, and pulls the viewer with it. At the centre of the painting is the armour of the soldier with his arm outstretched, glistening in the moonlight.
But the fascination for me about this painting is the depiction of the central character, Judas Iscariot. Christ, it must be said, is a pallid, nearly sepulchral, figure, beside a Judas who is depicted with care for his humanity. This Judas’ best days have passed, he is corpulent and balding. And, with the veins raised on the hand which grips Jesus, he is stressed, conscious of what he is doing. Caravaggio brings home to us that this image depicts the tragedy of two men, a double tragedy of which the Son of God was surely aware, as he knits together his hands, sorrowful at what is unfolding.
It is well-known that Caravaggio adds another feature to the painting, a self-portrait. He is at the right, balanced against the fleeing and screaming disciple at the extreme left. He crowds in with the soldiers, holding above their heads a lamp which, however, proves ineffectual: it sheds no light on the event. So, this artist, remembered for his raucous sins as well as for his painterly skill, places himself among those who have made Christ suffer, and modestly implies that he has no insight into the event – a modesty which is undercut by the piercing revelation that he provides.