CARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL – Ruth Brandon

CARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL  is the story of a Dr. Reggie Lee, newly arrived at the National Gallery in London.  Reggie is eager to make her mark in the art world and takes the first step by presenting a proposal for an exhibition to center around the three known paintings of St. Cecilia and an angel that were painted by Caravaggio.  Two have undisputed provenance; one of the paintings is in the Louvre, the other in the Getty Museum.  It is the third painting that will make her reputation.  No one knows where it is.  It is in “private hands” but whose hands remain a mystery.

Caravaggio and his work were famous during his life time but after his death he, and hiw work fell into obscurity.  Until the 1950’s, he was decidedly out of favor. But now Caravaggio is back and any exhibit that solves the mystery of the third painting will most definitely enhance the reputations of the museum that mounts the exhibit and the art historian who finds the third painting.  As Reggie follows clues about the painting, it becomes obvious that someone doesn’t what the third painting discovered.  When people die, Reggie becomes more determined to solve the riddle of Caravaggio’s angel.

Michelangelo Merisi had the bad luck of sharing the his first name with Michelangelo Buonarotti.   For his artistic life he adopted the name of the town from which he came, Caravaggio.  He was born in Milan in 1571, seven years after the death of the other Michelangelo in 1564.  Caravaggio’s paintings were darker; he was a master of light but the kind of light that illuminates something or someone surrounded by darkness.  His models were people he came across in Rome, more earthy and less ethereal than those of Michelangelo.  Wealthy sponsors used the word “vulgar” and frequently demanded he repaint if he wanted to be paid.

Caravaggio’s paintings became increasingly spiritual and increasingly a reflection of the people.  He used live models rather than drawings and, in doing so, painted their imperfections onto the canvas.  He dressed his models in the clothes of his day rather than in the clothes of the period of Jesus’ life on earth.  A painting of a buxom Madonna created a fury especially when it became known that the model was a prostitute.

Caravaggio displeased many in the church with his painting of the Death of the Virgin.  Mary Magdalene is weeping next to the body of the Madonna.  Although the Catholic doctrine of the assumption of Mary into heaven was not promulgated until 1950, believers from the first days of Christianity had accepted that Mary did not die but was assumed into heaven body and soul.  A dead virgin did not make the artist any new friends.

The painting that infuriated religious conservatives more than any other is the Madonna di Loreto, the Madonna of the Pilgrims. Caravaggio paints the virgin barefooted, standing in the doorway of a building that could be found anywhere in Rome.  The pilgrim  is without shoes and his feet are dirty.  Mary is beautiful but she could be any young, poor mother in the city.  The message of the painting, according to art historians, is that Caravaggio is presenting the moment when common man encounters divinity disguised as common man.  Mary is not wearing a crown as was the accepted respectful depiction of the Mother of God.  Caravaggio creates a vision of Mother and Child as they would have appeared in Nazareth, no different than any other members of the small town.

Caravaggio’s own life was a string of extraordinary experiences.  During his life, he was famous and notorius, a brawler who had to be bailed out of jail often by his supporters.  But when he killed a man, perhaps unintentionally, his friends knew they could do nothing to help him.  He fled to Naples, then to Sicily, and to Malta.  He returned to the mainland and on July 18, 1610, he died.   Controversy and rumors swirled about the cause of death.  He had killed a man, he was a brawler, surely he was murdered.  But there was no indication that he died of anything other than natural causes.  He was thirty-six years old.  With the exception of Michelangelo, no other painter has had more influence.  It was likely he died of typhus.

The painting at the top of this post comes closest to the painting of St. Cecelia as it is described in CARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL.  In fact, this piece was painted by Orazio Gentileschi, father of Artemisia,  both of whom were influenced by Caravaggio.  There is no evidence that Caravaggio painted a picture of St. Cecelia.

That, of course, doesn’t change the fact the Ruth Brandon wrote a book that anyone who enjoys mystery and art will be pleased to read.

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7 Responses to CARAVAGGIO’S ANGEL – Ruth Brandon

  1. janebbooks says:

    Beth, as you know, I enjoy mystery and art together!

    And anyone that has ever seen a Caravaggio will never forget it! I saw one that belongs to the Vatican at the Metropolitan in New York many years ago. It was a huge piece of work and I kept retracing my steps to go back and view it many times!

    Jane

  2. Beth says:

    There is one in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. The tickets are timed and patrons start on the second floor with the paintings. I think 30 minutes was allowed on the second floor and I spent all of it looking at the Caravaggio.

    The first floor was primarily sculptures and there was no time limit. That was a good thing because that was where the Bernini sculptures were found. Bernini is all over Rome but at the Borghese I could stop and contemplate how he was able to turn marble into flesh.

  3. Beth I enjoyed this post a lot. I enjoy art and this was so rich in detail — thank you for sharing.

    • Beth says:

      You are welcome. I have put this on the blog before and many people responded to it. Caravaggio’s personal story combined with his extraordinary talent, makes him compelling.

  4. Beth, I’m so glad that one of your readers commented on this novel yesterday. I really wanted to read it! Have you or your readers read THE LOST PAINTING by Jonathan Harr? It’s nonfiction written in narrative form about a REAL Caravaggio that hung in a Jesuit dining room for 60 years until it was authenticated. Fascinating!

    That Caravaggio is now on display at the Dublin Museum of Art. I visited the Dublin museum in 1999 on a literary tour of Ireland in 1999. We were on a mission…to see the special exhibition of Jack Yeats’ works. ( Jack is brother of William Butler Yeats.) I remember the banner announcing the Caravaggio…….surely regret not seeing it. It was one of the religious paintings…painted in the same year as the one I saw in the Vatican collection at MMA in New York in 1984.

    Jane

  5. Beth says:

    I have read Jonathan Harr’s book. I should take another look and post a review.

    My daughters and I were In Rome about ten years ago. The Galleria Borghese has a collection of ten or so paintings by Caravaggio. They are amazing because they represent different styles. We saw the paintings in the churches and in the Vatican. The Vatican Museum is difficult to appreciate because there is so much that one gets overwhelmed The Sistine Chapel is dizzying.

  6. Pingback: AUTHORS A – D ( A Good Place To Start) | MURDER by TYPE

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