Caravaggio and The Betrayal of Christ by Michael John Angel

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Caravaggio and The Betrayal of Christ

by Michael John Angel

Published on 8 September, 2014

Caravaggio (1571-1610) murdered between two and six people, depending on whom you read. He was a street ruffian, a swordsman, a lover of prostitutes, and a conceited adventurer. He was extremely touchy. He is reputed to have thrown a plate of artichokes into a waiter's face because of an imagined insult, and he hit a notary over the head with his sword for insulting his mistress, Lena. However, he was also the most amenable of professional artists. If a client wanted him to change part of his painting, Caravaggio did so; if the clients didn't like the painting, he painted them another; and all this without fuss. He was a sincere religious painter and an artist who frequented the most intellectual of Roman salons. As a man, Caravaggio was a mass of contradictions.

During his lifetime, Caravaggio was accused by his enemies (and he had many) of being unable to draw. Most Roman artists of the late 1500s/early 1600s were under the influence of Michelangelo , who maintained that a true artist worked only from imagination; to work from models was cheating. (A similar prejudice exists today against painters who work from photographs.) Caravaggio obviously worked from models, practicing the northern Italian manner that he had learned during his apprenticeship in Milan. Moreover, he used a system of mirrors from which he was able to trace a projected image of the posing model onto a piece of paper (called the cartoon) and transfer this to his canvas . He also composed by using mainly a two-tone value scheme, and almost always with an analogous hue scheme of red, red-orange, orange and yellow-orange. Caravaggio did not invent this tenebrist two-tone value scheme; it had been in use in the north for the previous two centuries . However, by adding the use of traced mirror-and-lense projections to the Northern European/Northern Italian two-tone value composition, Caravaggio was able to attain an unprecedented realism. It is his addition of the photograph-like projections to this scheme that constitutes Caravaggism, and it forms the basis of the immediacy and realism of his The Betrayal of Christ. Interestingly, in this painting, Caravaggio also employs a slight variation of his usual hue scheme: he adds small areas of gray-blue and gray-green to the scene. These disparate hues crowd together in a small area in the bottom-left quarter of the painting, thereby playing a part in creating the frenetic drama. A nice touch in The Betrayal is a self-portrait. Caravaggio is the man at the extreme right of the picture, holding up a lantern to illuminate the scene.

The Betrayal was painted in 1602. A version in Odessa was believed to be the original until another version was discovered in Ireland in 1990. There are actually twelve, worldwide. The existence of multiple copies is not surprising: there are roughly fifty versions of Caravaggio's The Cardsharps. The one in Texas is now thought to be the original, but nobody really knows. There are at least a dozen versions of his Doubting Thomas, and two of his Capitoline St John. Most of these versions date from the 1600s, and it is impossible to tell, empirically, which are the originals. The Odessa Betrayal was stolen from the museum in 2008, and Inga Loyeva , an alumna of, and instructor at, the Angel Academy of Art, Florence, was asked to paint a facsimile for the Odessa museum.Unfortunately for her, the original was recovered just as she was finishing her excellent re-creation.

In 1606, as the last straw in a chronic dispute over a woman, Caravaggio killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in an argument over a game of street tennis and had to flee Rome. After an adventurous four years that included many fights, a reformed period as a Knight of St John Hospitaller, an escape from prison and many painting commissions, Caravaggio died on his way back to Rome to claim his newly issued pardon. Some say he died from wounds inflicted in an ambush in Naples. Others say he died of malaria after being bitten by a mosquito. He was 39.

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