Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Two Painters; One Subject

Today during Art lecture I found myself again enthralled and piqued with curiosity by a few specific painters and pictures.
First, Caravaggio. Something about the way he employs deep darkness and light to illumine and illustrate his subjects strongly draws me. The realism catches in a special way. His figures are not prototypes or ideals but real people. One can almost touch them, smell them, breath the air of their painted atmosphere, feel the pain, wonder, surprise, courage of their countenances. They have personality and individuality.
Yet because they have personality, they are, in a sense, ideals. Caravaggio's figures are ideals of human personality. They stand at moments where we have been, they react to experiences as we would. They look like us in all our reality of both beauty and ugliness.

I had seen this image before, but it had not really spoken until I had been buried in Byzantine, Renaissance, and Mannerist paintings first.
St. Thomas (like many of us today) is incredulous, doubting, but amazed as, Jesus hand drawing his arm, he sticks his finger into Christ's wound. His eyes open wide and his forehead crinkles as if he find it hard to believe his senses. The other disciples sho just as much astonishment.
Consider the calling of St. Matthew (one of the original set of paintings which caused such a stir in Rome)...

...and the startled, incredulous look on the tax collector's face when the Lord points him out with singleness of purpose.
Or his inspiration as he writes the Holy Gospel (though I prefer Caravaggio's original, but rejected, painting of this subject where the angel guides the Evangelist's hand.)

...followed by the Evangelist's martyrdom...One can see the frightened horror in the face of the servant who flees, the contorted malice on the face of the executioner, the calm on Matthew's countenance as his uplifted hand receives the palm of martyrdom. Even the bystanders' unconcern is felt.
Consider the "Sickly Bacchus"... What viewer cannot tell that he is feeling the sickening, twisting pangs of his own over-indulgence?
Look at this depiction of the Taking of Christ...
What is Judas thinking as he gives his kiss? And Christ's expression? Is he feeling already the torment of the road He will walk that night? The right-hand onlooker wonders and the left-hand figure reaches out, opened mouthed in grief, terror, or flight.

Dare I even comment on this painting? It speaks for itself.

Just one more before I make my point.... The Crucifixion of St. Peter.

He is calm, unafraid, though his hands and feet have been pierced and even at the moment he is being lifted to die. He looks both at his cloak and at you. He seems to be saying, "When I was young like you, I dressed myself and went where I pleased. But now I am old I have stretched out my hands and someone else has dressed me and carried me where I did not wish to go. Yet I am glad for my Savior is at hand."

But I did not bring you, dear reader, through a brief sample of Caravaggio for the sake of these paintings. I wanted to introduce a bit of his style for the sake of comparison. For among all his paintings, this one grabbed my attention and held it. And when I was shown a painting by the daughter of one of his students treating the same subject, I must confess, I was more than a little intrigued.
If you know your Apocrypha, you could probably guess that this is indeed "Judith Decapitating Holofernes." The young, beautiful Judith divinely assisted to slay the pagan king who attacks Jerusalem.

I find this image fascinating not because of the gore but because of the expressions. Take a good look at the faces. Judith draws back, she seems to dislike what she must do in spite of Holofernes' evil. She seems to have set her mind to her task - a task impossible were she not helped by God. There is a strain to her eyes and face which indicates both a consciousness of her own danger, an awed resolve and confidence. Nothing about her face or her posture suggests revenge or anger on her part. Her whole attitude is that of an instrument. She is dealing Divine sentence, not her own. Her maid stands beside her, somber, ready, equally braced for whatever may come next. Holofernes face is a mask of terror and astonishment. His powerful figure seems strangely paralyzed as if he cannot defend himself, though no visible bonds constrain him. The strong has been defeated, the king brought low; the shock emanates from his visage.
Look at the painting again and contrast it with this image by Artemisia Gentileschi, the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a student of Caravaggio's.

The first thought which popped into my head when shown this painting, "Judith Slaying Holofernes," was, "Wow! that looks gory and painful!" The second thought riding on the heels of the first was, "Oh, my! Judith looks like she's enjoying this, like she's taking revenge on the man."
This Judith is so very different from Caravaggio's Judith. Perhaps her posture and expression are not so clear in these web-photos as in the paintings themselves, but I hope the reader can detect (at least partially) what I am getting at. This Judith is not shy of her task but almost seems to take a strange pleasure in it. This Judith is the one in control of the scene, along with her maid servant who holds Holofernes down. So very different from the Caravaggio depiction where it is clear that Judith is not taking control of the scene but that the mighty king is delivered into her hands.
The distinction struck me so hard, along with other reflections, that I resolved to look at these depictions again in more detail. However, when I had "googled" the topic, I stumbled upon an essay so well elucidating my own vague thoughts that I need not add my disorganized two cents but simply encourage the reader to peruse this essay; Portraying Judith and Holofernes: A Gendered Perspective.To give credit where credit is due, the previous two paragraphs borrowed in verbal concept from this essay, though the reflections arose beforehand of their own accord.

I'm not certain I completely buy into the whole "gender roles" theory, but the distinctions between the two paintings definitely seem to hold. (I'm more inclined to attribute the revenge to Artemisia's own painful youth and the reverberations from that incident. At least, several of her other paintings seem to reflect a sort of inward struggle with these sort of situations.)
Now what can we learn from this difference? Hmm. I'm not totally sure, except that I'd sooner hang the Caravaggio "Decapitation" on my bedroom wall than the Gentileschi "Slaying" any day. Caravaggio's Judith seems to trust - relying not on her own strength to stay Holofernes, nor on her maid, but on God. She does not turn from her task though it be dangerous and distasteful, but does even this deed in the strength and will of God. She seems to recognize that vengeance is not hers, that a death sentence is not hers to meet out, but God's. All young women would do well to keep these things in mind.
(And if I am totally off track, someone please let me know. :D )

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