Caravaggio & Bernini Vienna

The study of emotions: Caravaggio & Bernini at the Kunst Historisches Museum, Vienna.

Three works stood out to me at this exhibition Caravaggio & Bernini Vienna:

Orazio Gentileschi’s (1563-1639) ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac.

This is the Old Testament story of Abraham believing that his God wishes him to sacrifice his son Isaac, but in the moment of the high drama an angel stays his hand and Isaac survives. The work is a testament to Gentileschi’s skills as a painter and storyteller. But what struck me was how on earth a father could even contemplate killing his son and indeed the son not attempting to resist. The High Renaissance enjoyment of horror, extreme emotion, terror and above all fear, not love of God. What a God to believe in.

Orazio’s daughter Artemisia’s (1593-1654) work ‘Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy’ surely places her as an early feminist.

Here we have Mary as a heroine in ecstasy enjoying spiritual fulfilment after her newfound faith in God and Jesus. The execution of the work is stunning in its Caravaggesque rendering light, shadow, physical movement, intense human depiction to the fore of the canvas inviting the viewer to become part of the story. Orazio could be considered a man before his time: he employed a tutor to instruct his daughter to paint. Unfortunately, that tutor raped Artemisia and in the following court trial, Artemisia was subjected to thumb screws to ensure she was telling the truth.

Following the Caravaggio theme, I was able to indulge quite some time studying his ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ (1601-03).

Saint Dominic and Peter the Martyr are here as intermediaries between the common folk and the Virgin. The painting’s commissioner his here kneeling alongside an anonymous woman and child, a representation of various walks of life including shoeless peasants with realistic dirty feet.

So much to see and to interpret in this work. But on this occasion what particularly struck me was the circle of gesturing hands at the centre of this piece.

Each hand so depicted to tell its own story, for us as individual viewers to make up our own minds what it is all about and to emotionally respond as we feel fit. My thoughts? Caravaggio as a man of the people. Abiding by the Catholic Council of Trent instructions about art but using his distinctly unique approach to make a huge feature of the common man and woman as important as the saints.

The Bernini statue

reminded me of Antony Gormley’s message of sculpture’s distinct value in dominating the space it occupies. Making it a real physical presence that demands attention and perhaps even more important that the artist gets it right … paintings on a wall can be walked past, a sculpture is unavoidable, it must be walked around.

Caravaggio & Bernini Vienna