Caravaggio’s Viennese theatre of emotions

Entering the dark-lighted exhibition halls at KHM truly felt like entering a theatre stage.

Not only the setting reminded me of theatrical design but also the painting’s effects drew me to another world. Indeed I found out after visiting the exhibition that some of the Roman artists were actually engaged as actors and stage designers during their production period.

Caravaggio, Bernini and their successors are oftentimes valued as predecessors of dramatic advisors and directors. Their works of art show action in such moving and gripping ways like filmmakers do today. The greatest emotions are triggered at the decisive turning point of an action: the moment in which the main character’s luck is changing. Artists were aware of this and they made use of this affects.

It is no secret that especially Caravaggio has been able to bring not only an incredible light but also an equal amount of strong emotions to his works. The innermost motions of the psyche were greatly important to Caravaggio’s contemporaries too. It can be assumed that emotions were at the centre of art in the 17th century, concerning all areas of the arts such as paintings, sculpture, poetry and music. The artists did not only want the spectators to join in the wonderment. They consciously aimed for their works to astonish us.

Wonderment (meraviglia in Italian) and the associated astonishment (stupor in Italian) became key ideas in literature since the poet Giambattista Marino declared them to be the major criteria for judging poetry: ‘The poet aims for wonderment, I speak of masters, not dilettantes. Those who cannot cause astonishment must retreat into the stables.‘

Indeed that is what Caravaggio does at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. His expressive works astonish and surprise every kind of spectator, no matter if a non-professional or an expert is walking through the show. In his painting “Boy bitten by a lizard” for instance, Caravaggio leads us to the world of inner feelings. It is full of contradictions, since the scene is dominated by lust on the one hand and by pain on the other hand.

Baroque art often confronts us with two particularly strong emotions: the terror and the horror. Caravaggio and his successors chose tense moments in order to rouse these feelings in us too. They managed to stage these moments in scenes that seem realistic in every pigment of color and shadow.

We see bloodied figures and severed heads instead of eroticising beauties. Themes that are depicted over a long period include Judith with the head of Holofernes and David with the head of Goliath.

These terrifying themes have been juxtaposed by scenes of love and passion, which is another core topic at around 1600. Especially beautiful young male nudes were popularly depicted. It is notable how often androgynous young men were chosen to represent saints, which lead to a moralist discourse of heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

The saints are depicted at a moment that is exclusive to themselves: they are face to face with the divine. The Baroque idea was that humans will have to wait for the after-life to experience this kind of situation. We can, however, join these moments by viewing the works of art. Ecstatic enjoyment and rapture are popular themes for Baroque images.

Artemisia Gentileschi, for instance, is bringing us into such close contact with Mary Magdalena that we must fear disrupting her in this private, meditative moment. Her cheeks are flushed red with the adoration she is feeling inside.

All scenes certainly recall film stills and manage to transport the viewer to another site. A single look draws us into the midst of the events to relive the moment. And even spectators will express emotions and gesticulate in a certain way, therefore become actors themselves. That was the aim of Baroque art!

Make sure you don’t miss Caravaggio & Bernini at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The show will be open until January 19th 2020.

Find out more about it here.

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Photo credits: Judith Bradlwarter ©

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