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Faculty Lecture – Estelle Lingo on Caravaggio
WhenThursday, Nov. 8, 2018, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.
Campus locationArt Building (ART)
Campus roomRoom 229
Event typesLectures/Seminars
Event sponsorsDivision of Art History, School of Art + Art History + Design

Unbelievable: Reflections on Caravaggio’s Religious Art

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted in a new way that art historians are still working to describe adequately — visually, technically, and historically — but which, as the seventeenth-century painter and art writer Joachim von Sandrart memorably put it, made “most other pictures appear to be composed of colored paper.” Both Caravaggio’s contemporaries and modern scholars have understood the artist’s method of painting directly from the model in a controlled studio environment, without the mediation of preparatory figure drawings or elaborate compositional studies, as the key to this startling effect. In early modern art writing, and still today, Caravaggio’s style is most commonly — but too generically — described as naturalistic.

For decades now, the question of how to interpret Caravaggio’s religious art has balkanized the vast literature on the artist. A large and still growing body of scholarship reads Caravaggio’s religious paintings as giving visual expression to significant aspects of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. In these accounts the perceived naturalism of Caravaggio’s style and the visual prominence of studio models in his works, who were invariably drawn from the lower classes, are linked to the sensory engagement emphasized in post-Tridentine devotional practices and a renewed concern with the plight of the poor among new religious orders. Many other scholars, however, take these same visual features as the basis for a diverging view of Caravaggio as a proto-modern artist, whose painterly commitments are variously interpreted as a subversion of the authority of the institutional church, religious skepticism or atheism, and/or the visualization of libertine desires. Those scholars seeking a middle ground have usually found it by underscoring and embracing an inherent ambiguity in Caravaggio’s religious painting, which is often construed as an aspect of the artist’s modernity. Such solutions are attractive, but in general have not effectively situated the operations of Caravaggio’s paintings in their historical contexts.

It seems clear, then, that the interpretation of Caravaggio’s sacred art is, as currently framed, largely inseparable from the question of the implications of his new style of painting. This lecture will suggest ways of rethinking the longstanding debate over Caravaggio’s religious art by seeking a more precise account of his approach to the representation of the figure and the resulting visual characteristics of his painted surfaces. This process of grappling with Caravaggio’s style will require thinking within the early modern frameworks for image-making that must have initially structured the artist’s visual experimentation. But it will also entail thinking beyond them, to the historiography of photography, for the novelty of Caravaggio’s approach to painting gave an urgency to the issue of the image’s relation to the real world referent — the bodies of his models — that would not recur until the advent of photography.

Estelle Lingo is an Associate Professor in the Division of Art History specializing in early modern European art. She also holds the title of Donald E. Petersen Endowed Professor. This lecture is part of the process for promotion from Associate Professor to Professor.

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