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.