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Caravaggio’s Counter-Reformation

The influence of post-Tridentine concerns on the art of Caravaggio

Final assignment essay for the Undergraduate Art History Course Giorgione and Caravaggio: Innovation and Influence, at Birkbeck University, London, submitted Dec 2016 by Glennis McGregor.

Today, large audiences admire Caravaggio’s startling realism and moody drama for being ahead of its time - anticipating artists such as Édouard Manet and Lucien Freud. It is easy to form a modern image of a rebellious genius at odds with tradition, and misunderstood by his peers. Scathing biographical commentary by his rival Giovanni Baglione would seem to support this, who wrote that ‘some people thought that he had destroyed the art of painting’. (ref 1)

To fully appreciate Caravaggio’s life and work, however, it is necessary to look beyond the isolated persona, and explore the social context of his life and career. The religious beliefs and ideals of Counter- Reformation Italy are of particular interest in understanding his personal and artistic development from early childhood until his untimely death in 1610. Through this exploration, it emerges that Caravaggio - far from being out of step with his time - was powerfully in synch with the ideals and obsessions of Counter-Reformation Italy.

Sigismondo Caula, detail of St Charles Borromeo Administering the Sacrament to Plague Victims in 1576, Oil on Canvas, 1685. Modena, Galleria e Museo Estense

Early life under Carlo Borromeo Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571 to middle-class parents in the service of the noble Sforza da Caravaggio family. By the time he was five years old, his comfortable circumstances were shattered, losing his father, uncle, and grandfather to the plague.

At the plague’s outbreak, Caravaggio was living in Milan, a city dominated by the fiercely pious Archbishop Carlo Borromeo, a key Counter-Reformation reformer.

Borromeo proclaimed sin to be the root cause of plague. (ref 2)

Borromeo constructed roadside altars all over the city, so he could bring the sacraments of healing directly to the stricken, who were quarantined and excluded from church. (ref 3)

The issue of penance, and the authority of the Church to grant absolution through indulgences, was one of the triggers of Martin Luther’s 1517 protest. While Protestants felt believers could be redeemed through faith alone, Catholics felt salvation was possible through good works and the church-ministered sacrament of penance. By personally venturing into plague infested neighbourhoods and offering absolution to dying sinners, Borromeo was demonstrating the life and death power of the Church. It is not known whether Caravaggio believed that his entire male family brought on their own damnation and death through sin, but it would have been a prevalent belief in his community. Being a small child, the terrifying sequence of sin, penance and death would have penetrated Caravaggio’s developing psyche at a deep if not fully comprehensible level.

It was not long before Borromeo’s influence was to bear directly on Caravaggio’s artistic development. Borromeo had helped to formulate the decrees of the Council of Trent, and his direct style of ministering to the poor and dispossessed during the plague extended to his taste in art. For him, a populist and realistic approach was most effective. This, combined with the lingering influence in Lombardy of

Leonardo’s murky shadows, helped formulated Caravaggio’s unique style. (ref 4)

At the age of thirteen, Caravaggio signed an apprenticeship in the Milan workshop of Simone Peterzano, who trained in Venice, and promoted himself as a disciple of Titian. (ref 5) Titian’s legacy can be found in Caravaggio’s method of painting direct from models without preparatory drawings or cartoons - a Venetian practice Vasari attributed to Giorgione. (ref 6)

Peterzano’s rather severe compositions and modest colour range of subdued tones inspired by Moretto represent his contribution [...] to the Counter- Reformation climate fostered in Milan by Archbishop Carlo Borromeo. (ref 7) Just before Caravaggio arrived at his studio, Peterzano had completed a fresco cycle at the Garegnano Charterhouse in Milan, where Carlo Borromeo went to practice the Spiritual Exercises (1522-24) of Ignatius Loyola. The scenes were contractually required to ‘inspire devotion’, and were full of naturalistic detail and dramatic lighting which Caravaggio would have appreciated. (ref 8) Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises were very important to Borromeo and Counter-Reformation religious thought in general.

Simone Peterzano, detail of The Adoration of the Magi, fresco, 1578 - 1582. Milan, Garegnano Charterhouse

Loyola ‘wished Christian mysteries to be contemplated in terms of the actual and tangible’ but at the same time be retain a supernatural quality. (ref 9) This mysticism was to permeate Caravaggio’s mature work, the most lyrical example being the Madonna di Loretto (1603-05). In this altarpiece, destitute pilgrims kneel in prayer, and before their eyes the Virgin Mary appears - balancing her baby, like she is in the middle of housework - yet not too busy to answer their call. She is comforting in her ordinary domesticity, yet so perfect, she could only be a miraculous hallucination. Such a vision is available to all who are willing to undertake Christian meditation, rich and poor alike. In Friedlander’s opinion, ‘Caravaggio’s realistic mysticism is the strongest and most persuasive interpretation of the popular religious movements of the period in which he lived’. (ref 10)

Another popular religious practice in the Lombard region was to visit The Sacro Monte of Varallo. Carlo Borromeo first paid a visit in 1578 and later funded development of the site. (ref 11) This ’Sacred Mountain’ is a group of frescoed chapels filled with life-sized wood and terracotta figures re-enacting the life of Christ. Pilgrims who could not go to Jerusalem came here to meditate on the Passion.

The ultra-realistic figures, with actual hair and glass eyes, were painted to harmonise with their frescoed backdrops - like actors integrating with elaborate stage sets. The figures are animated, yet frozen in time. Andrew Graham-Dixon describes them as ‘interior, spiritual journeys’, like those of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises turned into ‘an actual physical itinerary with suitably moving or horrifying scenes’. (ref 12) Once familiar with these statues, it is hard not to associate them with Caravaggio’s tableau vivant style of artistic theatre.

Counter Reformation Style The Counter-Reformation brought about a desire for a simpler, more direct style of religious painting than Mannerism had offered. Mannerist artists such as Bronzino, Pontormo, and Daniele da Volterra favoured ornate and crowded compositions, with unnatural colours and distorted figures. In additional to surface richness, there would often be quotations from other artists and mysterious elements such as exotic animals thrown in to delight the beholder, like a clever puzzle. These purposely strange images

were engaging for the elite, but incomprehensible to the masses. (ref 13) It was for this reason

that Counter-Reformation patrons rejected Mannerism in search of a simpler style which would not confuse or alienate the poor and uneducated.

Caravaggio, The Cardsharps, oil on canvas, c. 1594. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum

For Maniera-weary patrons, Caravaggio’s unembellished realism was a considered choice. The Cardsharps, for example, avoids any detail superfluous to the drama. The players are so closely observed in their dress, activity, and facial expressions, that a shady tavern of Rome is vividly evoked without needing to illustrate one. It may take several scans to notice who is cheating whom, but the layers of deceit delight the street-smart and the aristocracy alike.

Saints and Martyrs

In 1592, Caravaggio arrived in Rome at age 21, unknown, but with powerful Colonna family contacts, for whom his aunt had served as wet-nurse. In 1595 Cardinal Del Monte purchased The Cardsharps and The Gypsy Fortune Teller from Caravaggio’s friend and open-market dealer Constantino Spata. Del Monte was so impressed, he provided patronage and residence for Caravaggio. He moved in the world of Rome’s Catholic elite, and helped to secure Caravaggio’s first large scale religious commission: The Calling and The Martyrdom of St Matthew as laterals in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi in 1599. With this commission, Caravaggio tackled a great concern of the Counter-Reformation: the veneration of saints and martyrs.

Caravaggio, The Calling of St Matthew, oil on canvas, 1599-1600. Rome, San Luigi Dei Francesco, Contarelli Chapel

One of the points of contention between Protestants and Catholics was the use of religious imagery, especially that depicting the Holy Family and saints, which Protestants equated to the worship of idols. The final decree of the Council of Trent in 1563 re-affirmed the legitimacy of this imagery, clarifying that the Holy Family and saints depicted were to be venerated, not the depiction itself.

Matthew, Peter and Christ in The Calling are presented without idealisation or shimmering colours, thus avoiding any risk of the image being worshipped on the basis of superficial beauty. Christ and Peter are both simply dressed and barefoot, signalling their affinity with the poor, while Matthew appears caught off guard, stripped of his debonair pretences.

This moment is set in an ordinary back street, thus easy to relate to as an ordinary person. Accessibility was discussed in post-Tridentine art treatises, such as the Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (1582), written by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, a close associate of Borromeo. He ‘believed that sacred painting should be easily accessible to everyone. It should imitate visible reality and create figures that seemed real and tangible.’(ref 14)

Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St Matthew, oil on canvas, 1599-1600. Rome, San Luigi Dei Francesco, Contarelli Chapel

In St Matthew’s Martyrdom, we witness the moment directly before Matthew’s murder, who looks frail and helpless at the feet of the well-muscled spear-bearer. The viewer is able to imagine entering the scene to intervene, but must instead accept the unbearable pain of Mathew, and the impotent shame of the onlookers, one of whom is Caravaggio in self-portrait. This resonates with Paleotti’s conviction that emotional identification with a martyr’s suffering increases feelings of devotion in the faithful. (ref 15) One wonders if Caravaggio is reflecting on his own inability to prevent the horrible end of his father.

Caravaggio, detail of The Martyrdom of St Matthew, oil on canvas, 1599-1600. Rome, San Luigi Dei Francesco, Contarelli Chapel

Caravaggio went on to produce a significant body of work featuring martyrdom and decapitation themes such as The Flagellation of Christ, Judith and Holofernes, Salome and the Head of John the Baptist, and the great Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in Malta, where no grisly detail is spared. Caravaggio’s affinity with violence in his art was perhaps deepened by his own violent temperament and personal experience of murder in 1606, but equally one must bear in mind the enthusiasm of Counter-Reformation patrons for martyrdom scenes designed to ignite the emotions of believers.

Identification with the Poor

After the unveiling of the Contorelli commissions, Caravaggio was very in demand as a religious artist. In 1600 he received another commission for two large scale laterals, this time for the Cerasi Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. Tiberio Cerasi wanted to commemorate his life with a stylistic dual between the two most celebrated artists in Rome: Caravaggio and Annibale Caracci, who painted the altarpiece and ceiling. In choosing the Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter, he was also pitting Caravaggio against Michelangelo who had painted this pair of scenes in the Vatican. The challenge must have stretched Caravaggio to his limits as he needed two attempts of each painting before arriving at the finished works. In the end, Caravaggio countered Caracci’s classically bright and radiant Madonna with scruffy, monochrome characters, caught up in powerful sacred dramas.

Left: Annibale Caracci, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, oil on canvas, 1600-01, Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel Right: Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St Peter,
 oil on canvas, 1601, Rome, Santa Maria del Popolo, Cerasi Chapel

This was, after all, the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (of the common people), who came as pilgrims to Rome. While Caravaggio had depicted Peter and Christ in the Contorelli Chapel with barely discernible bare feet, here we see the fully illuminated dirty soles of Peter’s feet. The first version of the Contorelli Chapel altarpiece of St Matthew and the Angel was similarly foot-centric, with Matthew appearing to be a blunt featured peasant possessed by the spirit of an Angel. Once again, his large dusty feet are prominently featured. In situ, his front foot could have looked like it was hovering uncomfortably close to the chapel altar. This may have contributed to its rejection, and his replacement Matthew is more scholarly in appearance with less prominent feet.

Left: Caravaggio, (rejected) St Matthew and the Angel, oil on canvas, 1602, formerly Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin Right: Caravaggio, St Matthew and the Angel, oil on canvas, 1602, Rome, San Luigi Dei Francesco, Contarelli Chapel

This foot preoccupation was not simply a feature of realism: it was an alignment with the charitable orders in Rome such as the Oratorians and Barefoot Carmelites, who saw identification with the poor as essential to faith. (ref 16) Both Christ and St Francis had washed the feet of their followers, demonstrating solidarity with the poor. Caravaggio may have recalled deep in his psyche the memory of Borromeo’s barefoot and ragged processions through plague-infested Milan, emulating Christ. (ref 17)

Before he fled Rome as a murderer in 1606, Caravaggio completed a large oeuvre of religious works including the altarpieces Madonna di Loreto, Entombment and Death of the Virgin, all of which illuminate the sanctity of poverty. In Death of the Virgin, Mary looks arrestingly like a real dead person of humble means on a plank. It is an accurate portrayal of how a poor person would have been carried to a Christian burial by the members of the charitable order who commissioned the painting. (ref 18) Here we are shocked not by the violence of death, but by the ordinariness of Mary’s body: bloated and floppy on the cusp of decay.

Caravaggio, detail of Death of the Virgin, oil on canvas, 1602-06. Paris, Musée du Louvre

Caravaggio, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, oil on canvas, 1608. La Valletta, Saint John's Co-Cathedral

Light and Dark

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their works were evil. (John 3:19)

Caravaggio is perhaps best known for his dramatic use of light and shadow, or chiaroscuro, the roots of which may be found in Leonardo’s innovative sfumato modelling, whose figures were illuminated with the soft light of dusk. A harsher contrast of light and dark suited the spare art of Caravaggio’s Counter-Reformation, particularly the themes of martyrdom and poverty. His art became even darker after he left Rome as a fugitive, although Marcia Hall observes this may not be due to solely to intensifying psychological darkness. The darker grounds and a more limited palette may have aided quicker execution while on the run, leaving some background spots unpainted. (ref 19) Bellori observes this in The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in Malta: ‘In this work Caravaggio used all the powers of the brush, working at it with such intensity that he let the priming of the canvas show through the half-tones.’ (ref 20)

Caravaggio's shadows hold within them unfathomable depths of fear and emptiness. Bleak shafts of light illuminate the brutality, folly, and occasional tenderness of this world. For 16th century mystics, darkness was also the precursor to enlightenment.( ref 21) Tragically, Caravaggio was unable to curb the violence of his own personality, and it is impossible to know if he believed the light of the church could irradiate his darkness. But if Catholic absolution eluded Caravaggio, the present-day church of Caravaggiomania forgives him absolutely. (ref 22)


  1. Giulio Mancici, Giovanni Baglione and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Caravaggio (London, Pallas Athene, 2016, 2nd edition), p. 53.

  2. Andrew Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane (London, Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 47-48.

  3. Helen Langdon, Caravaggio, A Life (London, Pimlico, 1999), pp. 18-19.

  4. Peter Cannon-Brookes, (ed.), Lombard Paintings c1595 - c1630, The Age of Federico Borromeo, Exhibition catalogue (Birmingham, City Museums and Art Gallery, 1974), p. 7.

  5. Graham-Dixon, p. 54.

  6. Roger Hinks, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: His life, His Legend, His Works (London, Faber and Faber, 1953), p. 35.

  7. Andrea Bayer (ed.), Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, Exhibition catalogue (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2004), p. 39.

  8. Langdon, p. 24.

  9. Walter Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 121.

  10. Ibid., p. 121.

  11. Cannon-Brookes, (ed.), p. 8.

  12. Graham-Dixon, p. 38.

  13. Marcia B. Hall, The Sacred Image in the Age of Art: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, Caravaggio (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 84-92.

  14. Friedlaender, p. 121

  15. Hall, p. 136.

  16. Graham-Dixon, p. 232-233.

  17. Langdon, p. 19.

  18. Pamela Askew, Caravaggio’s Death of a Virgin (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 13.

  19. Hall, p. 264. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Caravaggio, p. 91. Hall, p. 265. Richard E. Spears, Caravaggiomania, a lecture delivered Nov. 17, 2016, at the National Gallery, London.


  • Askew, P., Caravaggio’s Death of a Virgin (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990)

  • Bailey, G. A., Between Renaissance and Baroque: Jesuit Art in Rome 1565-1610 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2003)

  • Bayer, A. (ed.), Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, Exhibition catalogue (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2004)

  • Cannon-Brookes, P, (ed.), Lombard Paintings c1595 - c1630, The Age of Federico Borromeo, Exhibition catalogue (Birmingham, City Museums and Art Gallery, 1974)

  • Friedlaender, W., Caravaggio Studies (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1974) Graham-Dixon, A., Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane (London, Penguin Books, 2011)

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  • Penguin Books, 2003)

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  • New International Version, NIV Bible - Words of Christ in Red [Kindle Edition], (Hodder UK, 2012)

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  • Wikipedia, Chapels of the Sacred Mount of Varallo [accessed 04 December 2016]



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