Learning from Caravaggio

by eskokilpi

We have a curious habit of thinking that what we are accustomed to is the way things should be. We are inclined to accept conventional forms as facts, and as meaningful reference points, when facing novelty.

Artists are often the people who want to see the world afresh. It is not easy to get rid of preconceived ideas, but the artist who best discards accepted notions and prejudices often produces the most remarkable works of art. However, a painting that represents a traditional subject in an unexpected way is often condemned. Normally there is no good reason, apart from the work of art just not following tradition.

There have been a few times in history that a great artist looked carefully at what was visible to everybody, but in fact saw things very different from the way others saw them.

Very few artists have caused as much shock and outrage as Caravaggio (1571 – 1610). His full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio A famous story is told about the commissioning of a painting of Saint Matthew for the altar of a church in Rome. This happened around 1600. The saint was going to be represented writing the gospel that was later going to be named after him. As gospels were the word of God, there was also going to be an angel in the picture, giving guidance to Matthew. Caravaggio read the old texts very carefully and tried to figure out what it must have been like when an old workingman suddenly had to sit down and do something that he had never done, or never dreamed of doing: writing, and writing a book, and being guided by an angel!

Caravaggio painted an elderly man, seemingly from a poor background. A workingman with a bald head and muscular legs, writing awkwardly! Beside him was a strange child with beautiful white wings. A young angel was guiding Matthew’s hand just like a teacher would do to a young pupil doing something for the very first time. Caravaggio’s painting was a fantastic portrait of a human being in a very, very special situation. But it was more than that, it was also a completely new way of expressing a familiar topic. The painting was to be placed on the altar of a church in Rome.  This never happened because Caravaggio’s work created a huge scandal. The painting was not accepted because it was claimed that it showed a lack of respect for the topic! What Caravaggio had done, for the first time in history, was to create a new expression and give a human face to something that was previously highly formalized. Caravaggio may have been the first human-centric painter.

People thought that Caravaggio was out to shock them. They also thought that he had no understanding for beauty and tradition. In fact, Caravaggio may have been the first artist in known history who was labeled both a rebel and a naturalist at the same time. Anyway, he was the first painter of the “ugly” true reality. The curious thing is that seeing Caravaggio’s paintings today; one still encounters the same boldness, energy and power that must have shocked people over four hundred years ago.

Caravaggio’s art is still very much alive today, although the altar painting described here was never accepted for the altar and was eventually destroyed in Germany during the Second World War. It has been missing since.

The question remains whether the human-centric approaches today meet the same kind of opposition as Caravaggio encountered. This time, it is not about challenging the conventions carried forward by the church, or representations of what is considered holy. Human-centric thinking today questions the conventions carried forward by organization-centric thinking and the idealized representations of leadership/management. But the pattern is the same. Not much has changed, when it comes to the importance of Caravaggio! Being human-centric may be today as difficult as it was in 1602.

The challenge is the same: to look carefully at what is visible to everybody, but in fact see things very different from the way others see them.

Thank you @cshirky