Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – A Religious Painter

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born to Lucia Aratori and Fermo Merisi on 29th September 1571 in Milan, Italy. He was a leading Italian painter who lived and worked for most of his adult life in Rome. Caravaggio became famous for the realism of his larger than life religious works which were in the Baroque style. He had a volatile character, was reputed to be homosexual in orientation and committed murder in his life. He was probably born in the small town of Caravaggio and would have spent his early life in both Caravaggio and the larger city of Milan, where his father had a workshop. He had a reputation for being a controversial painter with a flamboyant style and personality. He was only 39 when he died and he lived and played hard.

Caravaggio was probably the most revolutionary artist of his time, as he abandoned the idealised human and religious experience of earlier painters for realism and the Baroque style. In those times, aspiring painters were apprenticed to artists to learn the craft and Caravaggio was apprenticed to Simone Peterzano. He became familiar with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael and other High Renaissance masters. He moved to Rome in 1592 and began to work in an artists’ factory painting fruit. He made friendships and connections and to paint his first works. However, some of his paintings were considered vulgar as the themes were sexual by nature, common and depicted death. The church and general society were not amused and the paintings sold for a low price. He turned his talents to painting religious themes in his own unique style, that of naturalism, lack of preparation in the execution of the work and using oils with which to paint. Eventually he received commissions for his craft and he became well known in higher circles of society. Artists created schools and retained pupils who were educated in the distinctive style of the master and Caravaggio was no exception. His naturalistic style influenced artists who were to come later such as Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Velaquez. In 1606 he killed Ranuccio Tomassoni and was banished from Rome, making his way to Naples. He enjoyed the protection of the Colonna family and continued to paint in churches and on canvas. His early death could have been a result of his wild ways. 

In The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1602, once again we see the play of light and shade and the rich texture of the oil paint in the painting. The brush strokes are delicate and well hidden, giving the painting a photographic finish. The models for Abraham and Isaac seem familiar as if Caravaggio has used them before for other works. This is quite possible. The angel is intervening just in time to prevent Abraham from killing his son and the look of horror on the face of Isaac implies a struggle by the boy against his father’s will. This is the naturalism that Caravaggio brings to his craft by depicting humans as they are, not as creatures who blindly do the will of a heavenly being. Caravaggio does not seem too concerned to paint every detail as precisely detailed in Genesis 22. He captures human emotions and passions perhaps because the artist himself is at the mercy of his own personality in life.

Caravaggio was paid in four instalments by his agents for this painting and it remains one of his most famous works today.