Helen Langdon on Why Caravaggio Speaks So Directly to the Modern World

Flawed. Brilliant. One-of-a-kind. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) has enchanted generations upon generations of art lovers all over the world through his shadowy – often violent – intensely dramatic paintings. British historian Helen Langdon talks about his continued relevance in her book Caravaggio: A Life:

He began his career as a painter of lyrical and courtly genre, with pictures of gypsies, musicians, and card players, which ravish with the beauty and precision of their naturalistic detail. But he developed into the most powerful religious artist of his age, creating a new Catholic art deeply rooted in the contemporary spirituality of the Counter-Reformation.

Caravaggio: A Life by Helen Langdon (1999, Pimlico)

The most famous painter in Italy, and celebrated throughout Europe, he was feared as a difficult and strange personality. He flaunted his originality, and mocked authority; he was fearless and belligerent, and in 1606 he killed a man, and spent his last years in exile. His greatest gift was for empathy, for making religious narrative new and vivid, and it is through this, and through his compelling personality, that he speaks so directly to the modern age. But although Caravaggio’s religious art sometimes shocked his contemporaries, at its deepest level it is in harmony with sixteenth-century spirituality. It reflects the passions of a restored Catholicism, yet its brooding darkness suggests both individual terror and the fears of an age of spiritual crisis and the collapse of a universal faith.

Images (Wikimedia Commons):


Judith Beheading Holofernes


The Beheading of John the Baptist


The Entombment of Christ


Conversion on the Way to Damascus


Death of the Virgin


Supper at Emmaus
Supper at Emmaus


David with the Head of Goliath


The Seven Works of Mercy




St. Jerome


The Crucifixion of St. Peter


The Calling of St. Matthew