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Caravaggio’s First Neapolitan years: 1606-1607

February 21, 2011




Caravaggio 1607.

112 1/2 x 74″

Oil on canvas.

For Church of San Domenico, Naples, now in Capodimonte Museum.

Tommaso de’Franchis commissioned Caravaggio to paint the Flagellation for his family chapel.  This was a huge canvas painting – about nine by six feet.  The monumental scale enhanced the intimidating quality of Christ’s torturers.  Caravaggio represents a radiant Christ who reacts to sadistic whipping the way any human being would.

It is clear that Caravaggio’s painting was inspired by Sebastiano del Piombe’s fresco from 1516 (San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, right).  Christ’s upper body is taken from Sebastiano and placed into Caravaggio’s much darker and economic composition (Moir 114).  Caravaggio eliminates almost half of Sebastiano’s characters while making just as startling an impact.  The 17th century artist seems to have taken ideas from several other compositions while adding his own twist.  His Christ appears to be trying to escape his bondage.  All main characters appear much more muscular, brutal, and sadistic than ever before.

Furthermore, while Sebastiano del Piombe’s Flagellation takes place in a more open, classical setting, Caravaggio places his in the dark, supposedly a dungeon.  The cavernous and isolated qualities of this darkness add to its hopelessness.  These men can get away with anything down here, where no one can see them.  The repoussoir figure makes it clear that we are not invited, but Christ makes every attempt to step into our world.

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.



Seven Works of Mercy

Caravaggio 1607.

150 x 100″

Oil on canvas.

Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples.

According to Moir, Caravaggio’s commission for this altarpiece came with a set of rules: depict the Acts of Mercy and the Madonna of the Misericordia in a single composition.  Caravaggio had no examples of this to look at, so he had to invent a composition.  He did, however, borrow some figures from previous representations of the individual subjects and from other paintings altogether (i.e. angels from Zuccaro’s Flight into Egypt) (110).

This was a church for aristocrats who paid to redeem Christians from the bondage of infidels and provided a place for pilgrims to rest.  No doubt many, if not all, Acts of Mercy were important to their mission.  This complicated composition includes all seven Works of Mercy, which are:
Shelter the homeless
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Visit the sick
Visit prisoners
Bury the dead
It also successfully includes the Madonna and child with angels.  All of these figures combined represent Salvation (Giorgi 151).

Perhaps most discussed is the figure of Carita, or Charity.  She appears as Pero, a character in Pliny’s Natural History, who visits her father Cimon in prison.  He was given a severe sentence that included starvation.  Pero fed her father from her breast.  This signifies both feeding the hungry and visiting the imprisoned (Hunt 111).

This altarpiece is a chief example of the diminishing variety of colors in Caravaggio’s palette.  Here, the artist merely uses brown tones and much darker shades.

Giorgi, Rosa. European Art of the Seventeenth Century. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. 2006.

Hunt, Patrick. Caravaggio. London: Haus Publishing Ltd. 2004.

Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1982.

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