More Highlight Masterpieces from Gallery Tours

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) Supper at Emmaus (National Gallery, London) 1601:

The life of this artist is fraught with controversy and much has been written about him. Recent research has now revealed that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was actually born in Milan rather the town of Caravaggio as was first thought. His father was a builder who worked in Milan and thus Caravaggio spent his early infant years in Milan from the date of his birth up to 1577 when this period of his life was brought to an abrupt end with the outbreak of a terrible plague Milan. It is at this point that his family went to Caravaggio, which is in fact where his family originally came from. Unfortunately this move came too late, because almost immediately, on the same day his father and grand-father died of the plague – Caravaggio was 5 years old. Although many churches and patrons commissioned him in his time, he often upset these very people by depicting the saints and disciples in his pictures in what we would call today ‘a realistic fashion’. The revered protagonists in Caravaggio’s pictures were shown as real people dishevelled in their appearance.

In this work ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ painted in 1601, Caravaggio again tries to convey the reality of the situation by showing the disciples as ordinary men. The disciple on the left pushes the torn elbow of his jacket through the picture plain and out into the space, which we, the viewer inhabit. While the disciple on the right wearing the scallop shell of the traveller with unkempt beard and hair stretches his arms through the picture plain showing Caravaggio’s mastery of the skill known as foreshortening. There is immediacy to this scene, in that Caravaggio shows us a split second frozen in time. The bowl of fruit on the table in the middle foreground is perched precariously about to fall to the ground spilling its contents. The disciple with the torn jacket is in mid-leap from his chair, while the disciple with the scallop shell has his arms stretched aghast at the miracle that confronts them. The whole scene is lit from a single point light source that throws the rugged expressions of the disciples into dramatic relief. This is the lighting effect known as chiaroscuro and it became Caravaggio’s trademark.

The cause of this commotion is the presence of the risen Christ. The stranger they had met previously on the road to Emmaus whom they had kindly invited to lunch is non-other than person they thought had died after being crucified. Yet with the simple breaking of the bread the disciples eyes are opened and they behold their saviour revealed before them as if he had never left them. But within this scene Caravaggio plays with our perception of reality. Althougth seemingly drawing us into a supposedly real space, all is not quite what it seems. We are aware of far too many things that in reality we could not perceive if we were present in front of these people. We are able to look down upon the table and its contents, yet we can still see the underside of the elbow protruding towards us on the left and indeed the underside of the hand reaching out to us of the right. We are also aware of a shadow that forms itself around the head of Christ as though forming a crude halo, yet the fall of light in the room dictates that such a shadow would not be in this position. But why would Caravaggio make these seemingly obvious mistakes but perhaps deliberate alterations to the reality of this situation? This is perhaps Caravaggio’s way of informing us that this is not an everyday event, but an extraordinary one. And as such the normal rules of everyday life do not necessarily apply. All is not what it seems, but so it shouldn’t be if such an event actually took place.
Leslie Primo © 2003

Holbein, Johannes (1497/8 – 1543) The Ambassadors (National Gallery, London) 1533:

This enigmatic full-length double portrait is a political statement as much as it is a record of two friends meeting in England. The portrait was painted in 1533, at the height of Holbein’s fame as the court painter to Henry VIII. He was recommend to the court of Henry VIII. By the humanist Erasmus Deriderius (whom he had painted ten years earlier in 1523) Holbein would go on to give us the definitive image that we all know when we think of Henry VIII. As I mentioned previously this is a record of two friends, Jean de Dinteville, here pictured on the right and his friend Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur on the left. Jean de Dinteville was visiting England on an unofficial ambassadorial mission in 1533 in a time of turmoil and upheaval in the court of Henry VIII, indeed it was during this time that Henry is seeking to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to re-marry Anne Boleyn.

Both men are dressed in rich finery and expensive clothes fashionable in the period. Their status, learning and the fact these men are well travelled is also alluded to in the collection objects arranged on and below the table. It is in these objects that many mysteries and clues lie as to the meaning of this picture. The table itself is divided into a heavenly and earthly realm. The celestial globe on the topside of the table and the earthly globe below help to establish this distinction. We are also given an insight into the ages of the two men, if we observe the dagger held by Jean de Dinteville, we can see the number 29 and if we observe the book-page edges under the arm of Georges de Selve, we can see the number 34. But is of the mysterious object apparently floating in the foreground, it is only when one approaches the picture from an acute angle on the right-hand side, that it is revelled as a skull.

It is this image and the partially revelled crucifix in the top left-hand corner that set up the other premise of this picture. Riches and status you may have, but all are nothing next to the certainty of death. Yet the promise of salvation can be yours if you believe in the Lord.

Leslie Primo © 2010