The Prado is the most well-curated major museum I have yet seen. The number of works on display is modest in comparison to the Met, or the Louvre, but if you were to take a class on the history of art from the early Renaissance to the 19th century, at least half of the masterpieces you would study would be located there. The collection is so precise and so important it almost hurts, and it’s hard to see very much on any given visit–not because the museum is too big, but because it’s exhausting. I had no idea what kind of collection the Prado had the first time I visited, and subsequently went from room to room shivering as I found myself looking at paintings like Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Breugel’s Triumph of Death, Fra Angelico’s Anunciation, Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition, Albrecht Dürer’s Self-Portrait, Goya’s 3rd of May, and everything by Velázquez (Las Meninas). It’s kind of how I feel in Rome right now, where I’m constantly turning a corner and realizing “Oh look at that, it’s the Trevi Fountain/Pantheon/Colosseum/Popemobile.”
Speaking of the Pope: At the suggestion of a friend, I went to mass at the Pantheon last Sunday. Turns out nothing makes Christianity look younger than taking it to tea in its step-mother’s house.
Speaking of Christianity, and segueing into the next topic:
As I’m constantly reminded here, during the 17th century, the Church was the only entity that had the funds to commission art, aside from the Crown and a few wealthy families. In today’s secular artistic atmosphere, it seems that religion is often an impediment to the appreciation of older works. The upside of the Church’s patronage is that it allowed art during that period to be produced at all. The downside, of course, is that in order to appeal to the Church, art tended to rely on a set encyclopedia of subject matter, symbolism, and even arrangement, lending even unique and technically extraordinary works an unavoidable sameness. Paintings might also resemble each other because: 1) Artists learned their trade by copying works by the old masters, studying books of forms and figures their teacher passed down to them, and apprenticing in a working artist’s studio (the artist would usually teach as well); and 2) Art was considered literal, not representational, which meant that the subjects of art had to be moral in order for the art to be moral. Resulting in masses of idealized religious paintings.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is considered revolutionary because around the turn of the 17th century he introduced the world to the concept of naturalism. He used everyday people as the models for his paintings of saints and Biblical figures, and made no attempt to disguise their low origins. For this, he was deeply criticized on both aesthetic and moral grounds.
What I find most intriguing about Caravaggio, however, is not just that his people looked like people, but that they behaved and were arranged in strikingly new ways. His Christ in Entombment is bizarrely manly and athletic, and his Calling of Matthew deliberately obscures which of the figures in the painting is actually the subject. Choices like these prioritized the artist’s (and by extension, viewer’s) interpretation of religious doctrine rather than the doctrine itself. Caravaggio’s intense individualism would also gift his figures with disturbingly real emotions. You can witness this phenomenon in Judith’s ambiguous revulsion and fascination in the painting from this website’s header (Judith Beheading Holofernes), or in Narcissus’s gently rapt self-love (Narcissus).
Caravaggio may have been emotionally attuned, but he was not emotionally generous. That is to say, he was very good at depicting emotion, but the emotions he depicted were his own, or the emotions he needed to convey some idea. Individualism, again. Caravaggio made no attempt to conceal the theater and artifice of painting, that he was hodge-podging light and faces to create an effect. He was painting real people, but he was not painting real people as themselves. In Entombment, for example, he is neither depicting a model nor Jesus, but a model-as-Jesus.
Enter José (also called Jusepe) de Ribera (1591-1652), a Spanish follower of Caravaggio who spent most of his active life in Rome and Naples. The Italians called him Lo Spagnoletto, or the “Little Spaniard.” He has a sensibility that always screams Spanish to me, probably because of his dark lines and craggy men, but his chiaroscuro (sharp contrasts) and naturalism are everything Caravaggio. I knew I liked Ribera, because I’m a sucker for the melodrama of the Caravaggesque, but when I saw an exhibition of his young work at the Prado, El Joven Ribera, I fell quickly and sheepishly into a pit of love. What is harsh and calculated about Caravaggio feels warm and empathetic in the hands of Ribera. Ribera is not an individualist, but a humanist.
Ribera does not quite have Caravaggio’s genius for/love of arrangement, but he paints people with a humanity that is deeply moving. In this series of paintings, based on the popular theme of the five senses, he takes an allegorical subject out of the realm of pristine symbolism, and gives it dirty, mortal tangibility. You can just about feel Taste‘s grimy shirt and wriggling plate of eels, or smell Smell‘s reeking rags and pungent garlic. Touch is famous independently of this series for its haunting irony. The blind man is face to face with a bust that he must feel despite his proximity, while the painting (a flat surface) on his table reminds the viewer that there is some information even touch could never convey. The painting is a reminder of the limits of human contact, and the impermeable divide between the real and the pictorial world. Sight bestows the viewer with a clear-eyed gaze, but is surrounded by tools for the improvement of physical vision, such as the telescope and eyeglasses. (Hearing has since been lost, though some claim that a painting called Girl with a Tambourine was intended to complete the series). Instead of imagining people to represent each sense, Ribera seems to have found people he considered representative, and then painted them from life.
What is a religious painter doing painting something so utterly concerned with the earthly plane? What is he doing painting something frankly kind of sordid? This view may or may not be expressed in scholarship, but it seems that, whatever other motivations he had, Ribera really just felt for people.
Even Ribera’s religious paintings have a shocking kind of human honesty. That honesty is touching in contemplative works like Saint Thomas (One of my favorite paintings. It’s geometrically brilliant.), if more unpleasant when people are getting flayed alive (he had a bit of a thing for Saint Bartholomew). As we’ve established, I get excited by theoretical, self-analytical art, but isn’t there something wonderful about art that is so in love with people it makes you fall in love with people too? Isn’t that pretty Christian? If Ribera had painted before the 17th century, I would have suggested that his aim was devotional, ie, to get people to feel a Saint’s pain or triumph for purposes of worship, and there is undoubtedly an aspect of that intention. But more importantly, his style seems like a response to an institution that was very suspicious of the physical (imperfect) facet of humanity. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these portraits have a lot in common with (Protestant) Dutch painting, which is filled with ruddy-faced tramps, windows/interiors, and hyper-real food. By putting people face-to-face with the most human parts of humanity, and treating them with affection and empathy, Ribera encourages people to accept those traits, and thus transcend them. When I look at Ribera’s paintings I feel somewhat uncomfortable, but also somehow understood.
Ultimately, Caravaggio and Ribera contrast each other well, because they represent two major ways in which one can respond to art. Caravaggio is an intellectual exercise, and my emotional response to him is dependent on how accurate I think his intellectual insight is (i.e. is Narcissus about our obsession with our own painted image, aha?). Whereas Ribera is profoundly intelligent, but routing his work to my brain would be missing the point. People are often so concerned with getting a work of art “right” that it’s easy to forget that sometime the most appropriate response is just…response.