Nov. 2, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 AM UCT
Caravaggio's St. Francis in Ecstacy from the Wadsworth, a similar canvas of which was on display in Malta.
Hartford turns up in the places you least expect it, like in an art exhibit in Valletta, Malta highlighting the work of genius painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, better known as Caravaggio.
About 400 years ago, Caravaggio spent three years in Malta as a guest of the Knights of St. John. The Knights of St. John were a stateless military organization who ruled the island of Malta.
These defenders of the Christian faith, leftovers from the Crusades, settled in Malta after being kicked out of Rhodes, which was closer to the Holy Land. The small armies of the valiant Knights provided Europe with a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire.
The Knights, in building their fortresses and hospitals on this small island north of Tunisia, south of Sicily, wanted great art. While their stated mission was to protect Christianity and to provide care for the infirmed, they were rich.
Most of the knights were noblemen from France, Spain, Italy and five other parts of Europe. They took their cash and used it for the glory of God. A little power never hurt, either.
But Caravaggio was far from being a knight. He was a hothead. In 1606 in Rome, where he could boast of being the most famous artist at the turn of the 17th century, he murdered a man.
An inlaid marble tomb of a Knight of St. John on the floor of The Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta.
He went to Naples, but his wealthy, connected patron in Naples couldn’t protect him from the authorities, or even his own temper, as again Caravaggio got in a fight and had to leave. So he fled to Malta, aiming to parlay his immense talent as a painter into a Papal pardon for his atrocious act.
Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique, which employed natural lighting to create realistic scenes, revolutionized Baroque painting. He school of art had many followers, but none had his flare or narrative voice as a painter.
Upon his arrival in Malta in 1606, the Grand Master of the Knights welcomed the rogue Baroque master. Under this commission, Caravaggio did some of his best work, like the Beheading of John the Baptist and the portrait of St. Jerome, both of which sit in Valetta’s Co-Cathedral of St. John, itself an architectural masterpiece.
Tourists marvel at the intricate barrell vault and inlaid marble floor in the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valletta, Malta.
The Knights loved having Caravaggio, and they made him one of their club. But he self-destructed here, too, and hastily departed in 1608 after wounding a knight in a brawl. The Grand Master revoked Caravaggio’s knighthood after learning of the murder charges.
Caravaggio died in 1610, still on the run. But his work endures. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the great painter’s stay on Malta, the National Museum of Archaeology put together an exhibit of a dozen or so paintings he did here on the island.
The most amazing one, hands down, is of Abraham and Isaac. Caravaggio captures the tension the moment right before Abraham is to slice his son’s throat, when the archangel Gabriel descends, and shows Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead.
It made me think, geez, suppose today that you’re married, with a son, and you hear voices saying "If you kill your son, you will be the father of all nations." Do you do it? How does your wife deal with it? What does your son say? Does he go gently to the Dome of the Rock with you? Or do you have to bind his hands, like Caravaggio paints Isaac as having?
After contemplating Abraham and Isaac, I moved over to the three canvasses featuring Saint Francis. First, in the series was St. Francis in Meditation. The psychological interpretation of that work, which I maybe buy, says you can see Caravaggio’s own remorse and prayers for redemption in St. Francis’s pose.
Next to it were two versions of St. Francis in Ecstasy, one where the good saint is laying down in the throes of divine communication, the other where he is in the woods more seated.
The placard explaining the portrait of the supine saint indicated that Caravaggio painted several versions of this same canvas, and the other St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy where the holy man reclines in the arms of an angel is in Hartford, Connecticut, USA.
A great big smile drew itself across my face, and I thought of the Wadsworth Atheneum’s amazing collection, earning a reference half a world away. I made a vow to Caravaggio’s ghost that I would certainly look for that painting upon my return to Hartford.
And I am certain that other citizens of the planet who saw the exhibit will remember Hartford for this. The worldwide fame of the Wadsworth's collection is proof positive that tax dollars should have gone to help build the Wadsworth's addition, thus giving it a chance to show even more of its collection.
It's the makings of this global reputation that Hartford can use as a prong in an economic development plan.