Beyond Caravaggio, The National Gallery – Review

From top down: Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602) and Supper at Emmaus (1601)

On Thursday 3rd Nov, I paid a visit to the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition, held in the gallery’s cavernous Sainsbury wing.

Expect more than just £3 meal deals and reduced Halloween plastic pumpkins here though, because the works on display inspire awe on another scale entirely.

Like no other painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio limned drama on canvas. Exploding with humour, holiness and horror, paintings like The Taking of Christ, and Supper at Emmaus (pictured above), seem to convey the entirety of human emotion in one fell swoop of the brush. Outstretched hands and furrowed brows are thrust outwards from the canvas’s Stygian depths, as a latent, five-hundred-year-old force of movement pulls the viewer into the action.

What is so striking is the timelessness of Caravaggio’s works. They breathe life into the nativity stories that tired and beleaguered RE teachers have drained dry in between screenings of The Mummy Returns. They rumble and fizz with the life of an age long passed, but their characters speak to us as fellow humans.

The show’s curator, Letizia Treves, has constructed an enticing narrative, tantalisingly distributing Caravaggio’s paintings throughout the galleries to create an Easter egg hunt-esque experience. Surrounded by the works of his followers, the Caravaggisti (among whom are such delightful folk as France’s Candlelight Master), Caravaggio’s superior mastery is evident.

My only reservation: one can be forgiven for feeling duped, as I did a bit, by the show’s marketing itself as a Caravaggio extravaganza. Indeed, its title might more suitably be displayed as BEYOND (big letters) Caravaggio (small letters), as the works of his disciples outnumber the great master’s own some 43 to 6.

This being said, it is through the show’s rampant contextualisation that we get a feel for the extent to which Caravaggio revolutionised the art of art-making. Emerging into the crisp night air, I brimmed with renewed appreciation of the artist’s exceptional talent. For when, under mysterious, as-yet-unsolved circumstances, this swashbuckling Italian kicked the bucket in 1610, he had given painting a new life.

Beyond Caravaggio runs from 12 October 2016 – 15 January 2017.