Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, 1610, Oil on canvas, 61 × 70 inches
I was in Naples last May and looked forward to seeing several paintings by Caravaggio, including “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula”, but that painting was in New York, having been temporarily swapped with “The Musicians” from the Metropolitan Museum. A few weeks ago I made it uptown to see “The Martyrdom,” just in time, before it was returned to Naples. It was hanging, pretending to be a normal painting, in the Baroque galleries.
I wish now that I had gone back to see it many more times and had been able to have conversations with friends in front of this painting. They would, as would you, I’m sure, notice aspects of the painting that I have missed.
Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595, Oil on canvas, 37 × 33 inches
In the “The Age of Caravaggio” at the Metropolitan Museum in 1985, I learned that it was important to look carefully at details in Caravaggio’s paintings. Looking at his “Bacchus”, I noticed the concentric circles on the surface of the liquid in the glass that was offered to me. The boy playing the part of Bacchus was nervous, his hand trembling as he held out the wine. Then I noticed that, to his right, he had just set down the carafe from which he poured the wine. The wine was still sloshing back and forth, not yet at rest. Examining the bubbles on the surface of the wine, I was astounded to see what I thought was a reflection of Caravaggio while he was at his easel and working on the painting. I thought that I must have imagined what I saw. A guard, seeing how I got closer and closer to the painting, and stared at that one area from different angles, came over and asked what was going on. He also saw the image. We both became very excited, telling others in the room, thinking that we might be the first to have made this discovery. He had a colleague call up to the offices of the curators to let them know what we had seen. Yes, the reply came back, the self-portrait had been discovered when the painting was recently cleaned.
Caravaggio, Bacchus (Details)
Since then, I’ve followed the writing about this self-portrait. Some commentators doubt that the image is really there, but I know that it is. Later, when I saw the “Bacchus” in the Uffizi collection, where it is normally installed, there was very little light on the painting. One would never know that the reflection was there, much less see it. I was very disappointed and could hardly bring myself to look at the painting, feeling that something essential to the painting’s meaning was missing.
Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1607, Oil on canvas, 150 × 100 inches
When I traveled to Naples in the ‘90s, I saw Caravaggio’s “The Seven Works of Mercy” at the Capodimonte Museum. The rooms with the Baroque, and especially the Neapolitan, paintings were often closed, but I found that I could hire a local guide, Raffaello, to go into those parts of the museum. We often wandered though the spaces by ourselves. Every morning “The Seven Works of Mercy” was in good, strong light. It was installed low to the floor, all details visible, ready to be examined.
Raffaello with The Seven Works of Mercy, Photo by David Reed,Capodimonte Museum, Naples
Last month, back in Naples, I saw this painting again, where it was commissioned to be located, at the Pio Monte della Misericordia, high over the main altar, far from any viewers. In the museum I became obsessed by, and often examined, a figure that I hadn’t seen at first. Praying and asking for mercy, a boy was hidden in the shadows behind the reflected highlight of St. Martin’s sword. In the Pio Monte I could not see any evidence of this dark figure.
The Seven Works of Mercy, Photo by David Reed, Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples
Did Caravaggio realize that the self-portrait reflection in the “Bacchus” and the praying figure in “The Works” would not be visible under the standard circumstances in which the paintings would be displayed? He must have. Was it enough for him to know, for himself, to have seen for himself while painting, that these images were there? To me that doesn’t make sense. What may not be seen, or easily seen, can be very important to the meaning of Caravaggio’s paintings. I look hard at his paintings because once seen, details such as these seem essential to the meaning of his work. With the self-portrait in the “Bacchus”, he implicates himself in the attempted seduction, showing that he is totally aware, even proud, of how he can manipulate a viewer. He accepted the commission for the “The Seven Works”, soon after he murdered Ranuccio Tomassoni and was on the run from the law. He is again implicating himself in the painting, but this time begging for mercy. Perhaps hoping that the message of his contrition would be well received by the Pope in Rome and he would receive a pardon. For his time he was unusually direct in the way he personally involved himself and his life in the themes of his paintings. Other painters used similar strategies but not so consistently. He must have wanted, and known, that at least some of those in his audience were sophisticated and knowledgeable enough to be aware of these biographical references, both overt and concealed.
Caravaggio, TheThe Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, In reproduction
Immediately when I saw “The Saint Ursula” in person at the Metropolitan Museum I had a surprise. I was startled by something that I had never seen in reproductions of the painting. A hand reached out towards me from the center of the painting. It was as if someone inside the painting was trying, ineffectually, to protect St. Ursula and involve me. Later I found that it was recently uncovered during conservation, like the self-portrait in the “Bacchus.” Even knowing that the hand was there, it was hard to pick it out from the background because of the way it overlapped folds of drapery. And it seemed detached. To which figure in the painting did the hand belong? I finally decided that it could only be the hand of the mysterious figure between and behind the General and St. Ursula. Is this figure Ursula’s maidservant? Or is it another soldier? As John Yau noted in his recent essay in Hyperallegic, this figure is not looking at what he or she is doing and reaching towards, but instead glancing off to the side and behind the General. This figure does not clue one to look at the hand. All the figures in the painting look elsewhere. The hand was in plain sight, but hidden.
Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula (Detail)
I continued to look at the rest of the painting with this new discovery in mind. To the far right, the armor covering the soldier’s arm is painted in a series of quick, abstract gestural marks, bright white, against black. These strokes of paint become a kind of shell protecting, but also revealing, the body beneath. And there is a strong vertical, nearly oval, reflection on the soldier’s helmet – again, white against black. I examined the reflections on the armor of the Hun. I couldn’t find anything specific reflected, no images. Has anyone else found anything? What is that strange metal emblem of the sun/lion on the Hun’s chest? It seems to me to be related in some way to the highlight on the soldier’s helmet, which is cold in contrast to the warmth of that light.
Caravaggio, The Seven Works of Mercy (Detail), Photos by David Reed
I was overwhelmed by the compressed violence of the painting. The figures were painfully close together. The violence was immediate, intimate and real. The General’s bowstring still vibrated. As Ursula watched, the blood spurted from her chest. Michael Fried writes of this painting in “The Moment of Caravaggio” that the General and St. Ursula are as close as the canvas is to the painter.
For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the self-portrait in this painting which I had seen only in reproductions. Caravaggio painted himself holding St. Ursula from behind. On a reproduction I could put my finger over her head and his head replaced hers. They seemed the same person, their emotions split apart. She was calm and detached. He suffered. Seeing the painting in person, I saw that it was more complicated. Like her, he tried to watch, straining to see the arrow enter. Their emotions were more mixed together and merged than I had realized. He was both outside observing, like her, and inside, experiencing what she experienced but in his own way. He felt her pain from the inside, as she did not.
While painting, I have had experiences of a kind of double consciousness which at first I found painful. I was aware of the whole of the painting on which I was working, seeing how everything changed when any detail was changed. To be aware in this way, I was on the outside, observing from somewhere else. This was the only way to see the painting as a whole. And, at the same time, I was inside the painting, fully identified with each specific gesture as it was made. I was unaware that the painting had any boundaries. Seeing the painting in person, I realized that how Caravaggio portrayed himself in “The St. Ursula” described the split consciousness that I had experienced while painting.
“The Martyrdom” is very claustrophobic: a close-up view of lust, anger and suffering. There are three streaks of a slightly lighter black in the upper right and a lighter area around the General’s head that might suggest the folds and interior of a tent. But these details are hardly there. The figures emerge from darkness, not from a real place. They are their own world. It is a compressed view in which nothing else, no other emotions are considered to exist. The painting convinced me that there was no escaping the terrible truth about the world described in the painting. In other paintings by Caravaggio there are views to distant landscapes or at least to walls raked with light. Or, there is a bit of nature in the foreground, a rock or a plant, carefully painted to set the context. But in this painting there is nothing that suggests a larger context.
There is a strange detail in the center of the “Martyrdom”. In the narrow gap between St. Ursula’s face and the head of the figure gesturing forward, I noticed a small area of painterly, convoluted forms that floated in the darkened space between the heads. Perhaps these marks were a decorative pattern on a helmet that was partially obscured by other dark forms. Or perhaps the forms were something leftover after other forms or heads had been painted out. There is no apparent explanation. Why did Caravaggio leave these unexplained forms in the painting? They could have easily been painted out. So much else in the painting has been subsumed in darkness.
Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula (Detail)
After leaving the museum, I had the thought that these isolated and artificial forms were the only hopeful element in the painting. The cruelty of this world could not be prevented, but these forms suggested something different, even offered some relief. Why did I feel this? The forms were occluded and only partly revealed next to the dark, unidentified shapes around them. These forms sank back into the painting and then projected forward, parts of them visible, then not. Viewing the painting I shifted my location, moving from side to side. It seemed possible that, from a particular angle, I might be able to see more of the pattern, find an opening to what was hidden. The forms were unfinished and unclear. They seemed to want to become more defined or to change into something else. Not being able to go back to see the painting, I imagined them revolving and swirling as they attempted to evolve.
The painting as a whole was a frozen instant from an ongoing action. The hand that reached forward tried to stop that action and in a sense it did. Time seemed to have stopped in the painting, but this stoppage also emphasized what would happen next. The arrow would continue and Ursula would die. Despite the contemplative way that St. Ursula watched the arrow, I could see the suffering on Caravaggio’s face.
The strange pattern of forms that now obsessed me implied a resolution of that split in consciousness between St. Ursula’s and Caravaggio’s portrait, and the split that I also experienced while painting. Time and motion were not frozen in those forms as they were in the rest of the painting, but instead time and motion seemed added and ongoing. I imagined this spot continuing to evolve and change, no matter where the painting was, whether it was being seen or not. This area was a kind of mechanism, an internal clock that always operated like a heart beating within the painting. And I decided that this area of the painting foretold many future possibilities in painting that would be discovered, by many painters, over hundreds of years.
In the “Bacchus” Caravaggio demonstrated his critical self-awareness by implicating himself in the drama depicted. In the “Martyrdom” he involved himself even more fully, analyzing the psychological dilemmas he experienced while painting. In “The Seven Works of Mercy”, he pleaded to be forgiven for his sin of murder. In the “Martyrdom,” after surviving an assassination attempt, wounded and in pain, he involved us all, not only in understanding how he was split while painting, but also how he suffered with a new awareness – a closer proximity to death, as close as he stands to Ursula. Are those her hands, or his, on either side of the arrow? Is he comforting her, preparing her body for the arrow, or dying himself? I still have many questions about this painting. They are questions that, as a painter, and a human, I need to understand, even if I can’t find answers.
David Reed, #657,1975/2003-2006/2013-2016, Acrylic and alkyd on polyester, 28 x 118 inches
David Reed is a Californian who lives and works in New York. His most recent exhibition was Painting Paintings (David Reed) 1975, curated by Katy Siegel and Christopher Wool. This show originated at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham Mass. and travelled to Gagosian, New York and Los Angeles. Recent paintings were shown in New Paintings, Peter Blum Gallery, New York, and in Vice and Reflection-An Old Painting, New Paintings and Animations, at the Pérez Art Museum, Miami.