Caravaggio Heaven and Hell
The fantastic thing about(Michelangelo Mersisi da) Caravaggio is the way he draws you into his story. Caravaggio Heaven and Hell
How does he do this? Notice his use of lighting? What is its source? Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes
it’s off to the side. Often it’s from the front, from you, you are helping to illuminate the scene, why?
Because you are there, included with the other players as an observer or participant.
The other device Caravaggio uses is the positioning of his scene on the canvas. More often than not to
the fore, right at the front of the canvas. The effect being that the scene is within your space not in some
far off distance. By implication, you are drawn into the scene along with your light.
Caravaggio depicted his characters in dramatic action poses. Not still and rigid, but moving, alive and
responsive. Like you and me. Real people and added to this he often used ordinary off the street folk.
So you are drawn into the picture, it’s part of you and you of it.
Now take this to the next level and take his ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ as an example.
The year is 1607.
It’s Catholic country with the Virgin Mary being of paramount importance. Saints and priests as
intermediaries between you and Mary, Jesus and God.
The 1215 4th Catholic Lateran Council amongst other matters has decided that people can buy their way through purgatory thus entering heaven quicker. We still have the Bible saying the rest of us can enter heaven if we behave. The 1545-63 Counter-Reformation, Council of Trent dictated that art should play a keener ‘illustrating’ role in encouraging the
congregation to be faithful and trust and follow the ways of the church.
Caravaggio follows this latter theme. His ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ certainly tells a tale. By being
emotionally drawn in as a participant, a ‘believer’ would gain tremendous warmth comfort and support
from being with the Saints as intermediary and even more so, blessed as being in the presence of Jesus
and the Virgin Mary herself.
You’re rich, as the work’s patron on the bottom left. You may even have made your money through
usury. That’s fine. You simply pay your way through purgatory.
You’re ‘poor in spirit’ or in interpretation, ‘humble’, like the peasants in the foreground. That’s fine. As
Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit (humble) for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 5:3).
You’re an ‘in-between’. That’s fine. You’ve got your intermediaries, you’re following the required
programme of attending masses, you’ve been baptised. You too will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
We all will, if we believe. And that’s the difference between the earthly heaven and hell. If you enter ‘in’
the Caravaggio picture, as invited by the artist, whatever your status, disposition, character, circumstances, contacts, one way or another, you’ll eventually get to heaven. That’s what you believe, that’s what you draw comfort from,
that’s your earthly heaven. When you die, if there’s nothing beyond, that’s fine, you’re past caring
anyway. But you’ve got that warmth of heavenly reassurance here on earth.
If you don’t enter Caravaggio’s picture, if you resist, if you don’t believe, if you’re just staring at it as a
detached outsider, you’ve got no after-life belief to take comfort from. This life is it, there’s nothing
beyond, it’s all pointless. Exactly perhaps as Michelangelo depicted in his ‘Last Judgement’ at the Sistine.