It is the 18th of July 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Sam Leanza Ortiz.
A quick note before we dive in –– it has been a pleasure serving as your guest host this past week. Thank you to my colleague and mentor Dan van Voorhis, for letting me host this week. I know we all look forward to his return as your regular host.
Today, we discuss the Italian Baroque master, Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, who died on this day in 1610.* While Caravaggio sounds he could be the rejected, fifth teenage mutant ninja turtle, his tumultuous life of beauty and tragedy is a compelling story.
Michelangelo Merisi was born on September 29, 1571, in the village of Caravaggio near Milan. Young Michelangelo’s name unknowingly pointed to his destiny as an artist. Also, it grounded him in the liturgical calendar, as he was born on Michaelmas, or the Feast of St. Michael, the Archangel.
He would spend precious little time in his childhood home, for he was removed from Caravaggio in 1576 when the bubonic plague struck. His father would die in 1577, and his mother would die just seven years later.
Now an orphan, Caravaggio secured an apprenticeship with Simone Peterzano, a fresco painter.
He really came into his own under the influence of Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan. The archbishop’s taste for the austere and the visceral helped shape Caravaggio’s stark approach to his depictions of biblical and classical scenes.
The technique for which Caravaggio is most famous is chiaroscuro –– literally light-dark. He was the most dramatic of them all, such that he developed a new technique known as tenebrismo, which intensified the darkness of the background to illuminate the three-dimensional figures in the foreground.
Unfortunately, Caravaggio would not have long to paint under the archbishop. He fled Milan in 1592 under suspicion of murdering a policeman, never to return.
In the period of post-Tridentine renewal, Caravaggio followed the same path as many painters of his generation –– to Rome. The Roman church, bruised by Reformation, needed to bounce back culturally, as well as theologically.
Caravaggio struggled for a few years, living the stereotypical life as a starving, young artist, but he eventually secured a patron in Cardinal Maria del Monte, a supporter of literary, visual, and musical arts. Under the cardinal’s patronage, his works earned the attention and admiration of the nobility, including the powerful Medici family.
He also obtained a commission through the cardinal to paint in the Contarelli Chapel within the French church in Rome, which gave way to some of Caravaggio’s most famous works, including The Calling of Saint Matthew.
Over the next few years, Caravaggio’s fame divided Roman critics. Young painters praised his artistic vision. His portfolio, by 1600, included his chapel pieces, The Sacrifice of Isaac, and Judith Beheading Holofernes.
Some controversial works, such as the emotional, The Death of the Virgin, were rejected as borderline heresy. The intense realism he produced tiptoed on the line between the sacred and the profane.
In 1606, Caravaggio fled murder charges for a second time –– this time for killing a pimp in a duel. This incident brought him even farther south to Naples, where he completed The Seven Acts of Mercy, perhaps hoping for mercy himself that would sadly never come.
He served a brief stint as a Knight in the Order of Saint John on Malta, during which time he painted The Beheading of Saint John. This grim succession of events was almost prophetic, as he was cut off from the order in 1608.
Prefiguring Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 1, Caravaggio laid low for a while on the island of Sicily, which is also the home of the Leanza family.
He continued to paint while on the lam, leaving works such as The Resurrection of Lazarus behind in Sicily when he returned to Naples in 1609. There he painted some of his final works.
Still facing murder charges, a brief hope for pardon emerged in July of 1610, and he set sail for Rome, though he would never arrive. The circumstances of his death and the location of his body remain a mystery, but the best guess out there from the foundation that bears his name is today, the 18th of July, as the date of the tortured artist’s untimely demise. Born in 1571, he was just 38 years old.
The last word for today comes from the Second Letter to the Corinthians:
“ For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 17th of July 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie.
This episode was written and read by Sam Leanza Ortiz
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.
*A previous episode of the Christian History Almanac from July 18, 2019, placed July 18th as the date of the painter’s birth. Caravaggio was born in September 1571, and while his death is shrouded in mystery, it is generally accepted that he died on July 18, 1610.