Caravaggio at the Met

Anyone who can get to New York City between now & 8/15 must — repeat — must go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eight pictures are on exhibit by Caravaggio, on every serious art lover’s short list for history’s greatest painter.

Like most great Italian renaissance artists, Michaelangelo Merisi, 1571-1610, was nicknamed after his home town, Caravaggio (pronounced karavadjo) in Lombardy near Milan. His early paintings are good but traditional. But he evolved a natural & individual style, based on light & shadow, so brilliant emotionally and artistically, that every great European artist for centuries after was indebted to him.

Three paintings, ‘The Musicians,’ ca. 1595, ‘The Denial of St. Peter,’ one of his classic later works, & ‘The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist,’ 1604, are in the Met’s permanent collection, in gallery 29. The others are in a visiting exhibit on Lombardy painting. Curators have learned a viewer-friendly trick. They divide a major artist’s work into clusters & hid them among other artists’ work, which distracts his fans so they don’t all rush to his stuff & end up blocking each other’s close up time before the paintings.

‘Cardsharps,’ ca. 1595, & ‘The Lute Player,’ ca. 1597-8, are together. Both are still traditional. The 2 sharps taking a rich youth is charming, arguably the best of his traditional pieces.

The other cluster includes one of Caravaggio’s most famous masterpieces, the large ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ 1601. Two disciples suddenly realize that the risen Jesus is sitting with them. The lighting effects, the outstretched arms of one & the projecting elbow of the other, challenge the reality that you are only looking at a flat two dimensional surface.

The penitent ‘St. Francis,’ ca. 1606-7, was done in Naples. Its a self-portrait & Caravaggio had much to sorrow about. He was on the run for murder. His genius & popularity fed his arrogance. He had insulted everyone from the waiter on, & was destroying himself as a consequence. The psychological drama produced by the lighting on his face is superb, to say the least.

‘The Toothpuller,’ ca. 1608-9, the folk ‘dentist,’ his patient & the crowd taking in his agony, are all so terrifically three-dimensional & highlighted in his finished style that it compelled me to imagine how he would have done the sharps & his other early works, in his final period.

Caravaggio’s later work appears amazingly modern. I think this is due to our having grown up in the age of movies. Orson Welles & ‘The Third Man,’ film noir, Bergmann’s ‘The Seventh Seal.’ These, in black & white, other works in color, have made us acutely aware of the potentialities of high tech lighting in art. From our vantage point, looking backward into history, Caravaggio’s ability to reproduce such contrasts of light & shadow, centuries ago, in the age of the fire place, the torch & the paint brush, is nothing short of miraculous.

My best advice is start this artistic tour in gallery 29, then, ignoring the rest of the Lombardy show, do the 2 Caravaggio walls. That will give you an in-depth idea of his genius. Then take in the rest of the Lombardy show. It is not overwhelming. There are some drawings by Leonardo, but his drawings have been beautifully reproduced & are familiar to his fans. The one other great masterpiece in the show is Giuseppi Arcimboldo’s ‘Vegetable Gardener,’ made up of vegetables in a pot, painted to look like a gardener, with nose, ears, eyes, & Co.

If Caravaggio inspired the art of the next centuries, Arcimboldo was centuries ahead of his time. A favorite of his day’s Habsburgs, who were serious art patrons, he fell out of favor until 20th century surrealism. Now everyone is his fan, as you will be after you see his gardener.

LENNI BRENNER is the editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis. He can be reached at

Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at