Thursday, February 7, 2013

Painting and Orthodoxy

Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi (formerly The Last Supper),  1573

I've always found it odd that the Inquisition went after Veronese, a very technically brilliant artist, but not perhaps the most thoughtful.  He got dragged before the Tribunal over this painting, which the Inquisitors considered far too light hearted for a Last Supper.  They even threatened Veronese with more serious charges of heresy.  He was ordered to change the painting in 3 months.  Instead, Veronese changed a few details and figures here and there and changed the title.  No more was said and the matter ended.

And yet, the Inquisition never touched Caravaggio, a hustler, a thug, and a murderer from the Roman streets who brought that experience into his religious work.  Some people still find his religious work to be deeply unsettling, especially a painting like The Death of the Virgin showing not some glorious Assumption or Dormition, but a quite dead corpse laid out on a plank surrounded by grieving Apostles.

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin Mary, 1606

The public was outraged by this painting.  Church authorities obliged the patron of the work, Laerzio Alberti, to remove it from the altar of a chapel in Santa Maria della Scala in Rome and to replace it with a less disturbing work by another artist, Carlo Saraceni.  This is the painting that stands on the same altar today.

And yet, for all the fury over Caravaggio's work, he never faced any Church tribunal.  When he did finally face a magistrate, it was not over any charges of heresy, but to answer for the murder of Ranuccio Tommasoni.

Caravaggio "John the Baptist,"  c.1600

I've always found it curious that whenever Caravaggio paints some nude Roman street boy as "John the Baptist" (in this case, his auburn haired model, apprentice, servant, and probable lover, Francesco "Cecco" Boneri), everyone starts speculating about his sexuality.  What's to speculate about?  Sure the written testimony says that Caravaggio had a mistress or two, but the testimony of the paintings clearly and unequivocally reveals that he really liked boys.  Maybe one of his mistresses posed for his paintings of a clothed Mary Magdalene, but he never painted them with nearly as much gusto as he painted nude Cecco either posing with a love-struck ram in the painting above, or wearing fake wings and sprawling with naked legs akimbo over emblems of worldly power and fame as a laughing Amor.

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, c. 1600

And yet, Titian can paint Mary Magdalene wearing only her hair and showing her tits complete with nipples, and everyone takes his sexuality for granted.

Titian, Mary Magdalene, 1533

And Rubens can show boobs busting out all over in his religious work (even Our Lady shows some cleavage here) and no one seems to mind.

Rubens, Virgin and Child with Saints, c. 1640; this painting now stands over Rubens' tomb in Antwerp


Some scholars speculate that an older Cecco may have posed for the figure of Christ in Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus.  The resemblance is striking, round cheeks, auburn hair, pouting mouth; but, if Cecco did pose for this figure, then the painting would have to be dated much later than the 1600-01 date that is the consensus among most scholars.  The documentary evidence indicates that this painting was one of Caravaggio's earliest religious paintings, commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a patron of Bernini (and would have been a major coup and debut for so young and unknown a painter at the time).  Based on that evidence, I think it unlikely that an older Cecco (or a younger Cecco that the very model-dependent Caravaggio somehow aged) was the model for Christ, but it's an interesting thought.


JCF said...

Hmmm, when I saw this blog entry title, I was hoping for Byzantine iconography!

...nevertheless, I look forward to reading it, in depth.

rick allen said...

You are familiar, I am sure, with the resolution of the ancient Donatist controversy, the contention that a sinful, unworthy or heretical priest could not validly perform sacramental acts. It was determined, and became subsequently a matter of Christian orthodoxy, that the priest's office alone was sufficient for the validity of the sacrament. This was partially a theological matter--sacramental grace is conferred, not by the individual minister, but by Christ and the Church through him--partially a practical matter--who can know a priest's secret sins, and be sure that a baptism "took"?

Similarly with artists. An artist may be fervently orthodox (as Rubens appeared to be) or a discreet non-believer (as Leonardo is widely believed to have been). What matters is the art, not the visible or occult state of grace of the artist. It certainly wouldn't be hard to make is list of excellent religious art produced by skeptics, rebels and the otherwise indifferent.

With the Veronese affair it's again the case that the art is the thing, not the artist. Though the instigator of the accusation was the Venetian Inquisition, giving the story a certain dark menace, that shouldn't hide the more fundamental fact that this was an example of the perrenial struggle between artist and patron. The transcipt of the interrogation (which would be rather comic if it weren't the Inquisition) shows the same outrage at the presence at the Last Supper of "fools, jesters and Germans" that Rockefeller expressed in finding Lenin in his frescos.

Patrons, on the whole, don't care if artists are heretics or murderers. They do care if the artist is working within the bounds of his commission--an eternal conflict.

Counterlight said...

That still doesn't explain why a relatively anodyne painter like Veronese gets threatened by a church tribunal, while Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin which caused howls of protest and was removed from its altar and replaced still didn't cause trouble with the Inquisition at a time when any kind of initiative in religious manners was seen as a threat by both Catholic and Protestant authorities, and people kept their views to themselves for reasons of safety. I'm guessing that Caravaggio had the protection of powerful princes of the Church like Cardinal Del Monte and Cardinal Borghese.

rick allen said...

Probably quite true. Friends in high places trump innocence any day.

Why Veronese's rather tenuous offense got singled out does remain a mystery. I probably find it less puzzling because, working in the law, the arbitrariness of enforcement proceedings seems a given. Like the poor traffic cop who hasn't reached his expected number of tickets for the month, it could be that somebody acted on a complaint about Veronese because it was a slow month.

[By the way, for the first time today, since you asked last month, your site seems to come up entirely on my screen. Another of life's inexplicables.]

Counterlight said...

Controversial or not, Caravaggio's painting The Death of the Virgin is so superior in every respect to Saraceni's that replaced it on the altar of the chapel in Santa Maria della Scala. Francesco Gonzaga bought it eagerly, and Rubens urged King Charles I to buy it. It ended up in the Louvre after Charles' death.