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Caravaggio’s Sicilian Years: 1608-1610

February 21, 2011



Burial of St. Lucy

Caravaggio 1608.

161 x 120″

Oil on canvas.

Santa Lucia al Sepolcro, Siracusa, Sicily.

After his embarrassment of the Knights of Malta in 1608, Caravaggio fled to Siracusa, Sicily.  He was almost immediately commissioned to paint an altarpiece of the Basilica Church of Santa Lucia al Sepolcro.

Although this may be a rare scene to commission, it makes sense in Sicily because St. Lucy was the patron saint of Siracusa.  This church was built over the catacombs in which St. Lucy was martyred in 304 (Moir 122).

By this time, Caravaggio was well accustomed to painting multi-figural compositions.  His use of monumental figures in the foreground compared to the smaller figures behind them creates the depth that is not obvious otherwise due to the dark background.  Although the classical niche he painted in the back wall indicates more depth than there would be otherwise.

The two gravediggers in the front plane mirror each other, creating a movement throughout this relatively shallow space.  Although they are much larger than the figures in the background, they are of optically similar heights to most figures in the composition.  This leads the viewer to believe he is on the same level as everyone in the painting, and so feels included in the event.

Close examination of this work reveals a pentimento around Lucy’s head.  Caravaggio had apparently painted Lucy’s head hanging by a thread.  He adjusted his composition to show only a slit in her neck.  This reworking causes Lucy to appear as if in a state of ecstasy with her head thrown back slightly (Hunt 122).

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

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



Rasing of Lazarus

Caravaggio 1609.

150 x 108″

Oil on canvas.

National Museum, Messina

While in Messina, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the church of Padri Crociferi.  Giovanni Battista de’ Lazzari was the patron.  Instead of painting a typical Madonna scene, Caravaggio opted to play on the patron’s name and compose a Raising of Lazarus.  This was also more appropriate for the Order of the Crociferi who cared for the sick (Moir 124).

The realism of this painting shocks most viewers, scholars, and critics.  As in the Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio supposedly used a dead corpse as a model for Lazarus, whom had been deceased for four days.  Some believe a man holding his nose due to the stench can be seen in the background (Seward 151).

Like The Burial of St. Lucy, the action of this composition inhabits only the lower portion of the canvas.  Lazarus appears to imitate the crucified Christ with his still-rigid body and outstretched arms.  There is a dynamic back and forth among characters in the scene – some look in opposite directions, some point toward each other.  The dramatic diagonal of Lazarus’s body cannot be ignored.  He sets another wheel-like composition in motion in his portion of the painting.

Although the figures are lined up on the same plane, for the most part, the depth that Caravaggio created with the empty background emulates a coextensive space.  No longer does Caravaggio attempt to enter our world, instead, he sucks us into his.

Caravaggio has quoted himself quoting Michelangelo in this painting.  Christ’s commanding hand on the left side of the painting echoes The Calling of St. Matthew, which recalls Creation of Adam.  Here it more literally quotes Michelangelo’s notion of infusing the lifeless with life than merely giving a life, already much lived, a new meaning.  This sense of having a repertory of figures can be misleading.  It is believed that Caravaggio painted mostly from memory in his later years while using some models.  It is also argued, however, that many female figures show up several times throughout his later works, such as the Magdalene seen in this painting (Sciberras 109).  The quotation of Michelangelo in this piece seems to be a device dependant on recognition rather than facility.

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

Sciberras, Keith, David M. Stone. Caravaggio: Art, Knighthood, and Malta. Valletta: Midsea Books Ltd. 2006.

Seward, Desmond. Caravaggio: A Passionate Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1998.


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