AN OBSESSION WITH UNREASON: Absolute and Faithless Doubt

Caravaggio has become the ultimate old master superstar; his only real rival is Vermeer. It was a great if sadly short career. Caravaggio’s work was an expression of awareness of the precariousness of a reason that can at any moment be compromised, and definitively, by madness. Matthey, a Geneva physician very close to Rousseau’s influence, formulates the prospect for all men of reason: “Do not glory in your state, if you are wise and civilized men; an instant suffices to  disturb and annihilate that supposed wisdom of which you are so proud; an unexpected event, a sharp and sudden emotion of the soul will abruptly change the most reason-able and intelligent man into a raving idiot.” Caravaggio and the obsession with unreason….

Caravaggio. The Calling of Saint Matthew. Slowly, and still in a very scattered fashion, the eigh-teenth century constituted, around its awareness of mad-ness and of its threatening spread, a whole new order of concepts. In the landscape of unreason where the sixteenth century had located it, madness concealed a meaning and an origin that were obscurely moral; its secrecy related it to sin....

His art was a critique of alienation as a logical extension of reason; yet in his own Christian way, showed the inevitability of the disease when reason is pursued as an absolute.It was likely his own obsession with the absolute, the testing of the limits, that was his undoing  “It was Augustine and then Calvin who used the concept of alienation to emphasize that the problem of sin or evil was not just theological but relational — a breach of man’s relationship with God entailing a breach of all other relationships. The alienation of evil is theological, between God and man; sociological, between man and other men; psychological, between man and himself; and ecological, between man and nature.”… When reason is made an absolute rather than a tool, rationalism is stretched to the breaking point and is pulled over “the line of despair,” creating a basic dichotomy, a two-tiered view of truth, an “escape from reason.”

In his thirties Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610) was sometimes called the best painter in Rome. Great collectors gave him handsome commissions, young painters imitated him. His realism disturbed some people but he was clearly defining a new style. Charting the fortunes of Caravaggio is one way to learn how each era in history chooses which artists it wants to admire. Caravaggio, whose art seems to speak from the past in ways we recognize in the present, has become a popular favourite, making it convenient to mark the 400th anniversary of his death with exhibitions and books. Why is the artist, who died 400 years ago, now so popular, when for so long he was quite beyond the pale?

The Fortune Teller.For models, Caravaggio used laborers, prostitutes and gypsies. The church was outraged. Painting after painting was rejected: a dead Virgin that looked like a bloated corpse, a jailer yanking Christ's hair, saints with dirty feet. Cardinal Federico Borromeo wrote in indignation, "Contaminated men must not deal with the sacred." The 19th century art critic John Ruskin called him the "ruffian Caravaggio," and described his work as ''horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin.''

“In the end, and not forgetting all these contributory factors, paradoxically the real reason we revere Caravaggio is because we agree with so many previous commentators down the centuries about his art, but love what they loathed. It is the collision of unfiltered naturalism with an operatic sense of drama that makes Caravaggio so overwhelming, and it may not be by chance that his public breakthrough came in the age of film noir, when highly wrought chiaroscuro was the dominant cinematic—and therefore visual—mode. Now more than ever, our jaded sensibilities require extreme stimuli, and we are exceptionally impatient.”…

Perhaps the first point to be made is that Caravaggio was both immensely admired and at the same time profoundly divisive of artistic opinion in his own day. On the one hand, he famously won prominent commissions in Rome and elsewhere, while on the other hand a seemingly unprecedented number of his productions were rejected by his patrons. Similarly, for all that an impressive tally of his artist contemporaries lined up to denounce his works, it was no less a figure than Rubens who pounced on his cast-off Death of the Virgin, 1601-03, altarpiece for his Gonzaga masters in Mantua.

David With the Head of Goliath. "Born in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio arrived in Rome at the height of the Inquisition, when the church was all-powerful. But Rome also had a rich low-life of courtesans, gamblers and brawlers. Caravaggio led a double life, dividing his time between the gilded salons of the powerful cardinals who were his art patrons, and the back-alley demimonde of whorehouses and taverns — the inspiration for his paintings. Art historian Maurizio Calvesi says the artist rejected the uplifting Baroque style so dear to the church, and plunged biblical narratives into the gloom and desperation of contemporary reality."

On the other hand, his private life was universally deplored, or at best profoundly misunderstood.  While his bisexuality was tolerable, he was personally insupportable. He was always “tabloid-ready,” Caravaggio’s uncontrollable temper started many barroom brawls. One of them left his face permanently scarred. Another ended with the death of his antagonist, which forced him to flee from Rome and petition for a pardon from the pope.

… “The immediacy and directness of Caravaggio, allied to the death-fixated violence of so many of his creations, seem ideally suited to the present age. It may have taken an astonishingly long time for his hour to come, but from today’s perspective it is now virtually impossible to imagine that his sun will ever set.”

After he died at the age of thirty-seven, ostensibly of malaria, his infamous personal life and a reaction against the harshness of his art together created a shadow over his reputation. Nicolas Poussin, a great painter who lived in Rome a generation later, said he thought Caravaggio’s intention was to destroy art. When the great museums of Europe began sorting out the blue-ribbon artists of the

, they rated him as something of an outsider, not really central to the grand tradition.

Sainte Catherine. NPR:Many of Caravaggio's works were filled with grief, suffering and violence — images in contrast with the church's predilection for rosy cherubs and angels in the heavens. Francine Prose, author of Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles, says his paintings reflected the violence of the times. "Beheadings were a daily fact of life in Rome," she says. "So if you look at Judith and Holofernes or the Beheading of John the Baptist, which is in Malta, they are paintings of executions. His crucifixions, the deaths of saints are executions, so he lived in a very violent time." Under papal orders, heretics were burned at the stake. Caravaggio may have even witnessed the execution of the philosopher and theologian Giordano Bruno in Campo dei Fiori in 1600.

The shadow over him grew darkest in the nineteenth century. In 1846, John Ruskin, a Victorian’s Victorian, deplored his “perpetual seeking for and feeding upon horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin.” He thought Caravaggio a ruffian in art as well as in life. However, recent decades have decided that the homosexual tone in some of his paintings can no longer be called a flaw. Neither can the violence in many others. Beyond that, consider the large and seldom mentioned problem of Christianity’s effect on the history of art. It is conceivable that Christian art in the museums may be responsible for creating more atheists than Charles Darwin.

For centuries the Church was a generous and ambitious patron but not exactly the patron artists and their supporters would have chosen. As it became a formalized religion and the spiritual centre of Western civilization, Church leaders encouraged the master painters to produce pious and often boring,though aesthetically beautifully executed Biblical scenes.

Incredulity of Saint Thomas. WGA:According to St John's Gospel, Thomas missed one of Christ's appearances to the Apostles after His resurrection. He therefore announced that, unless he could thrust his hand into Christ's side, he would not believe what he had been told. A week later Christ appeared, asked Thomas to reach out his hands to touch Him and said, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.' This drama of disbelief seems to have touched Caravaggio personally. Few of his paintings are physically so shocking - his Thomas pushes curiosity to its limits before he will say, 'My Lord and my God.' The classical composition carefully unites the four heads in the quest for truth. Christ's head is largely in shadow, as He is the person who is the least knowable. He also has a beauty that had not been evident in the Mattei paintings of His arrest and appearance at Emmaus.

Displayed in museums four or five centuries later, all those annunciations and pictures of the virgin and figures of saints constitute one of the heaviest burdens art has to carry. Perhaps the rise of Caravaggio has also reflected a corresponding fall in the status of formalized religion. Many of his paintings are religious, but in his own way. His Biblical paintings rarely show the comfortable, well-fed characters who populate much Christian art. He used street people, hustlers and beggars, as models. He was a realist and believed that if the story was bloody in the Bible then his picture should include the blood.

“Beginning with the seventeenth century, unreason in the most general sense no longer had much instructive value. That perilous reversibility of reason which was still so close for the Renaissance was to be forgotten, and its scandals were to disappear. The great
theme of the madness of the Cross, which belonged so intimately to the Christian ex-perience of the Renaissance, began to disappear in the seventeenth century, despite Jansenism and Pascal. Or rather, it subsisted, but changed and somehow inverted its meaning….

… It was no longer a matter of requiring human reason to abandon its pride and its certainties in order to lose itself in the great unreason of sacrifice. When classical Christianity speaks of the madness of the Cross, it is merely to humiliate false reason and add luster to the eternal light of truth; the madness of God-in-man’s-image is simply a wisdom not recognized by the men of unreason who live in this world: “Jesus crucified . . . was the scandal of the world and ap-peared as nothing but ignorance and madness to the eyes of his time.” But the fact that the world has become Christian, and that the order of God is revealed through the meander-ings of history and the madness of men, now suffices to show that “Christ has become the highest point of our wisdom.” ( Foucault )

Burial of Saint Lucy."Celebrating someone’s death seems particularly morbid, but in Caravaggio’s case it’s a bit more appropriate.. It’s a nod towards a rebellious, live-fast, die young legacy of the painter that has been so lionized over the past several decades. Caravaggio has become a choice foil for our Romantic fascination with the eccentric genius- a brilliant talent who, in defying the artistic establishment, was as brazen as he was courageous."

Caravaggio’s work is meant to be “read” like a text, like texts, a series of story boards for a film; the viewer is transposed into effects Caravaggio creates, demanding  a probing speculation on why he creates them. The new buzzword about Caravaggio  is “absorption,” meaning the depiction of figures so deeply engrossed in what they are doing, feeling, and thinking that they strike the viewer as wholly unaware of anything else;  in Incredulity of Saint Thomas , which closes in on an intensely focussed version of the Biblical story of Doubting Thomas poking a finger into one of Christ’s wounds before accepting that he’s experienced death and resurrection. Again and again, Caravaggio takes us deep into a picture, creating a dimensionality of narrative.

Caravaggio. The Taking of Christ. 1602. "His philandering lifestyle and frequent run-ins with the law have made him the Baroque equivalent of your standard, self-destructive celebrity today. TMZ would have had a field day with some of this guy’s more mild transgressions: amongst which included late night cavorting with friends, insulting rivals with “We’ll cut off your balls and fry them in oil!”, carrying a sword without a license, being sued for libel by an adversary painter, assaulting an impolite waiter over the topic of artichoke preparation, and fielding a landlord complaint, publicly registered against the artist for throwing stones at her window."

At the heart of Caravaggio is the concept of religious dispute, both within and without; in particular the opposing themes of Humanism and Clericism. During the renaissance humanism stood for the intellectual attitudes of the ancient world paired with the wide acceptance of the existence of God, which evolved into abstraction, fragmentation and atheism. Humanists were interested in aesthetics, saw the usefulness of historic knowledge, and were convinced that man’s main duty in life, was to enjoy his life soberly and to be active in his community. Clericism, has tenaciously  believed God reigned supreme to all and that humanism remained useless because the  man was worth so little. Caravaggio was a critique of humanism, by portraying it in an existant but subordinate role, though its very presence was considered taboo. Caravaggio lived at the time of the Reformation; post Martin Luther divorce for “irreconcilable differences” over changing the views within the church and cleansing it.

"Catholicts effect on art (Clericism) was that of the Baroque era. Baroque art attempted to bring people back to the churches and re-establish the power of Rome. Mainly found in southern european countries such as the mediterainian, it was a style widely used as propoganda. This style of art, like many other retains specific attributes that would classify a painting as a 'Baroque' style of art, such as; a direct sense of motion; strong contrast of light and dark; hightened emotion; the blurring of distinction between illusion and reality; and the breaking down of the barrier between the painting and the viewer. All these traits can be found in the painting the conversion of st. Paul by caravaggio (1601). Measuring a grand 90 1/2 x 70 in., this painting really catches you attention and is somewhat 'in your face'. It contains a picture of St. Peter falling off his horse, with hands outstretched towards the light of God. All outside areas are nearly pitch black , giving us our contrast between good and evil (light and Dark.) "

When we talk about what helped cause this sudden revolution in both the Catholic church and in art, we are also able to look upon a man named Gallileo. Gallileo discovered that the earth revolved around the sun and not vise versa. The Catholic church believed this was heresy, a belief in conflict with religious beliefs, because it was the idea that God did not control the planets and the stars, but in fact science overthrough those naieve religious beliefs. Not that the Church could dispute the findings; simply that the implications would be profound and challenge the centuries of ego and pride that had been institutionalized:

Caravaggio, "Martha and Mary Magdalene," oil on canvas, 98 × 133 cm., ca. 1598, Detroit Institute of Arts

“The quasi-oneiric character of madness is one of the con-stant themes in the classical period. A theme which doubtless derives from a very old tradition, to which Andre du Laurens, at the end of the sixteenth century, still testifies; for him melancholia and dreams have the same origin and bear, in relation to truth, the same value. There are “natural dreams” which represent what, during the preceding day, has passed through the senses or the understanding but happens to be modified by the specific temperament of the subject. In the same way, there is a melancholia which has a merely physical origin in the disposition of the sufferer and alters, for his mind, the importance, the value, and so to speak the coloration of real events. But there is also a melancholia which permits the sufferer to predict the future, to speak in an unknown language, to see beings ordinarily invisible; this melancholia originates in a supernatural inter-vention, the same which brings to the sleeper’s mind those  dreams which foresee the future, announce events to come, and cause him to see “strange things.”

But in fact the seventeenth century preserves this tradi-tion of the resemblance between madness and dreams only to break it all the more completely and to generate new, more essential relations. Relations in which madness and dreams are not only understood in
their remote origin or in their imminent value as signs, but are confronted as phenomena, in their development, in their very nature.
Dreams and madness then appeared to be of the same substance. Their mechanism was the same; thus Zacchias could identify in sleepwalking the movements which cause dreams, but which in a waking state can also provoke madness.

“The scandal of Christian faith and Christian abase-ment, whose strength and value as revelation Pascal still preserved, would soon have no more meaning for Christian thought except perhaps to reveal in these scandalized consciences so many blind souls: “Do not
permit your Cross, which has subdued the universe for you, to be still the madness and scandal of proud minds.” Christian unreason was relegated by Christians themselves into the margins of a reason that had become identical with the wisdom of God incarnate.
After Port-Royal, men would have to wait two centuries-until Dostoievsky and Nietzsche for Christ to regain the glory of his madness, for scandal to recover its power as revelation, for unreason to cease being merely the public shame of reason.” ( Foucault, Madness and Civilization )

This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Cinema/Visual/Audio, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Literature/poetry/spoken word, Marketing/Advertising/Media, Miscellaneous, Visual Art/Sculpture/etc. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to AN OBSESSION WITH UNREASON: Absolute and Faithless Doubt

  1. Lemuel says:

    Hi, Dave, was there really fever with Mary Magdalene in the arts? She was very frequent more than the ordinary for quite an extended period of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>