If I would follow the example of the “One Hundred Most Beautiful Women in Art“, I would have had to start a story about this painting with the the picture, or a floorplan, of the museum where it is now, then describe its working hours, the route from the nearest metro station, and the ticket price. I am not planning to follow this full suite all the time, but in this particular case a few words about the Detroit Institute of Art wouldn’t harm.
The museum is perhaps not so well known and (over) promoted as a few crème de la crème museums in the US, but it’s actually one of the largest city museums in the country (with its collection of 65,000 artifacts it occupes the third place in the ranking, and steadily moved to the second, despite the fact that it is a fairly ‘young’ museum, by the industry standards, it was founded only in 1883.
In the context of the picture, and to explain the title of the posting, I’d like to mention a recent interesting project of the museum, which is running at this very moment. It’s called Inside Out, and is aimed at showing art to a wider audience, by displaying many famous pictures from the museum on the streets and squares of the Detroit city and the surrounding areas:
I was stunned by such audacity, but then it turned to be that they in fact show the reproductions, not the real paintings; phew! Although the museum is very rich (the cost of its collection is over a billion dollars, by the most conservative estimates) and assumingly can survive the loss of one or two its masterpieces, displaying the real paintings on the streets would look like an invitation to the criminals from around the world to pay a visit to Detroit.
Now, since I started to talk about criminals, it’s a good moment to return to Caravaggio.
Here, and if I would again follow the example of my today’s guide, I would need to present some details about biography and personality of Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio, better known as simply Caravaggio, the master who painted the picture above. Here is chalk portrait, made by some Ottavio Leoni circa 1621.
Ok, this is not the exact reproduction of the portrait (you can still see the exact one here), but rather a collage colliding different ages and contexts. But the context of being arrested by Italian carabinieri was not a context completely unfamiliar to Caravaggio; quite the opposite, in fact.
Evidently, Caravaggio was an extreme psychopath, of the so-called agitated type (in other words, he struggled with an impulsive personality disorder, if to follow modern classification). The latter is characterized by the “emotional instability, impulsivity, low self-control, an increased tendency to aggressive outbursts“, which is exactly how he behaved, to the best of our knowledge. And the encounters with ‘law enforcement officials’ were all too frequent in his life.
Caravaggio was born in 1571, in a fairly wealthy and also fairly educated, even artistic family. His father was an architect at the court of Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milano. But he died, from plague, when Michelangelo was only five years one, and several years later his mother died, too. We know that he spent a few years studying painting in the workshop of Simone Petertzano (who is by now known mostly by the fact that young Caravaggio spent some years in his studio).
Some sources explain his departure from this workshop rather evasively, saying that he “graduated prematurely for unknown reasons”. According to other sources, the main reason was his attack on the city guard (a policeman in modern terminology), which forced the 17 year-old young man to flee to Rome. Where he appeared in the summer of 1592 , hungry, half-naked and penniless.
Judging by what has happened with him next, we can assume that he was indeed an incredibly talented draughtsman, for the lack of better word, since soon he accepted – in Rome, where there was no shortage of good artists! – to the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari, by the a very well-know and commercially successful master (but by now also known mainly by the fact that Caravaggio used to work with him). It is in his workshop the young Caravaggio created his first paintings that we now recognize as the masterpieces.
I guess, originally most of his works were just such ‘fruits and berries’, that surved as the elements of his master’s works, be he was apparently very successful in that, since in just 3-4 years he started to paint (and sell) his own works, too (including, for example, the Head of Medusa, that I wrote about in my posting about St. George who killed her.
At some point Caravaggio has apparently ‘turned up trumps’, his work were becoming more and more popular, they’ve been bought by more – and more eminent – collectors and patrons of art, including, for example Cardinal Maria Del Monte – the latter’s ancestors still hold the largest collection of Caravaggio’s works, so called Del Monte Collection). He has developed his own, very unique style in art. It is not always easy for us to understand, and fully appreciate it now, since his paintings are already for ages a part of ‘normality’. We don’t quite get how innovative they’ve been, especially against the background of then dominant mannerism in Italy. His works have ought to be seen as strange and powerful, like, for instance, Kirchner vs Manet.
His skills and mastership has progressed tremendously, and by the end of 1590s he was indeed one of the most famous painters in Rome. Yet his personal habits have changed a little, on the contrary, he became even bigger trouble-maker, ready to get in all sorts of hassles, quarrels and duels. Even if we take into account a much more brutal public life at that time (and place), Caravaggio was a brawler much more than the average dude from the street.
Here is an extract from the protocol of the detention some Micalangelum de Caravaggio, that also includes the sketches of a sword and a dagger, found at him.
He didn’t have rights to wear them (and even less so, to use them – which he did anyway, without much delay.)
Recently this, and many others similar documents from the archives of the city Rome had been published for the first time in four hundred years, which opened a lot of not so pleasant details from the biography of the artist.
He was a genius, no doubt, but he was also a rude and arrogant man, fighter and brawler, and also ‘intensively adulterous’, as they put it. For some time he managed to avoid any serious punishment because of the patronage of his high-ranked friends, but at some point even the ‘high roof’ did not help; apparently, Caravaggio killed a relative of am equally high-ranked someone, and was forced to flee Rome in 1606, this time to Naples. There he again became “the most famous artist of the city”, and again it did not save him from the problems, he was killed in a skirmish in 1610, allegedly in revenge for his own earlier murders.
Now, there is an interesting theory that have been developed lately, which tries to explain both the outbursts of his violent behavior and perhaps his death, too. Apparently, Caravaggio used a lot of lead-containing pigments, to paint his characteristic dark backgrounds and deep shadowed figures – which may have been poisoning him over time, and eventually could also kill him. Whether it’s true or not, is an interesting subject for further studies, but I now have to move one, and tell a bit about the painting; it has its own interesting story.
Let’s have a look the painting again (I am using here the print-screen from the website of the same DIA that provides you with this ‘magnifying glass‘, to better explore the picture):
Before I go to the content side, I’d like to note that this painting is seemingly the very case of a ‘mirror touch’; it shows a “hand on the mirror”, more precisely, a hand ona glass mirror”. Before mirrors used to be hold by in the hands, but neither the hands – or toe fingers – had been reflected in the mirror surfaces. Further even, it looks like this ‘mirror touch’ is the main focal point of the painting; neither of the women look at the mirror, no other interactions with the mirrors are shown.
What is actually shown on this painting? What is happening here, and what role the mirror play in the scene? Assume we know nothing about the meaning (the ‘text’), and the context, and the subtext: what we see here are two young women standing at a table, looking at each other in silence. One (wearing a better, evidently more expensive, but also more exposed dress) lays her left hand on a large convex mirror, while holding a flower in her left hand. The other, in more simple dress and cloak, look at her with some perplexity. There is a comb and a (powder?) jar on the table.
So, two girls gossip about newly bought mirror?
I made a polarized version of the image to show the ‘strong’ light spots on the painting (they are blue in my color scheme). We see that the strongest, most emphasize elements of the composition are the face and neck of the first woman in a center, as well as her hands; the hands of the second woman; her scarf, and the comb.
This colorization also helps to see how bright is the reflection of window in the mirror; we don’t see the mirror on the left, but we sense its radiating light that lits the scene.
The official title of the painting is Martha and Mary Magdalene; it was created about 1598, during the most glorious years Caravaggio in Rome. Most likely, he painted it for Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. It’s fairly large, 135 x 110 cm in size.
When seeing the name of Mary Magdalene we must experience some sort of cognitive dissonance. This is not exactly how Mary is usually portrayed, most likely you saw the pictures of that sort (they all depict so called Magdalene Penitent):
Interestingly, but Caravaggio also has another Magdalene (it’s very tempting to say, the ‘real one’) painted about a year before, in 1597:
Here we see Magdalena the Penitent indeed; this particular reproduction is of not very hight quality, and doesn’t allow to see the really big tears rolling down from the eyes of the ex-whore – but they are there:
An attentive viewer could see some resemblance between this “real” Mary Magdalene and the “left” girl in the first picture, Martha. And she would be right, this attentive viewer! The portrayed is really the very same model, some Anna Bianchini. Caravaggio painted her on several of his works:
Interestingly, but in the ‘real life’ Anna Bianchini was indeed a courtesan; at that time in Rome that didn’t necessarily mean a ‘street girl’ (as, for example, allege the above book, about a hundred beauties – the list, by the way, includes the Anna-Magdalena too). The institute of courtesans in Italy was somewhat similar to Japan with its geishas, who would be described as ‘female entertainers’ rather than prostitutes.
Even more interesting is that the second girl – some Fillide Melandroni – was also a courtesan, and Caravaggio also painted her several times:
So, the courtesans modeling as courtesans, interesting fact, but how can it help us to understand the meaning of this painting? In fact, neither the girls in the picture was really a courtesan (in their ‘real’ lives, that is, or rather in their ‘Biblical lives’).
This is a chronically confused story, and its multiple misunderstandings and incorrect interpretations over centuries have already became an integral part of it. I wrote about this twist already, when deconstructing the story of the Velasquez’ Meninas. There is even a web page about this episode from the Bible, so called Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary.
Martha and Mary (or Maria) are actually sisters, the daughters of Lazarus of Bethany (thus, Martha of Bethany and Mary of Bethany). Jesus has often been to their home, and the famous biblical story occurred during one of such visits. When Jesus stopped by, Martha began to cook something; she is portrayed pragmatic and rational. Mary, known for her introvert, contemplative character, sat at the feet Jesus and listened to his stories. At some point, Martha called her (younger?) syster and start reproaching her for laziness and negligence. She even asked Jesus to help:
– Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!
But Jesus replied:
– You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. [Luke 10: 38-42]
The story was a very known and popular subject at that time, and there are many versions of it painted by famous masters, such as Tintoretto, for instance:
Many similar paintings had been made during centuries; in fact, many of the so called Kitchens, or Markets of Renaissance are the depictions of this story, but you often have to search for Jesus and Mary, hidden behind the piles of flesh – look, for example, at this work by Vincenzo Campi:
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1584)
But somehow with time a swap has happened, and Mary, the daughter of Lazarus has become another Mary, Magdalena. Caravaggio was not the first, of course, who mixed these heroines, and their stories (and it’s a separate question if confused them at all. Perhaps, we need to blame interpreters who came much later).
At some point this confusion became a new norm, new dogma even (e.g., in Catholicism). Here, for instance, the authors merged two stories into one:
The work by Caravaggio, intentionally or not, is extremely ambivalent (and the role of this mirror is also very ambiguous). From one hand it can be understood as a symbol of of vanity, the sine from which Martha is trying to rescue Mary (another version of the title is Conversion of Mary Magdalene).
From the other side, and if we believe that Mary is in fact closer to the truth, that will not be taken away from her, then the mirror – her mirror – becomes the symbol purity, holiness and all the things good. It is also the source of light which Mary is showing to Martha the simple.
It may be also worth to look closer at the mirror itself, and its richly decorated frame. The reproduction I have does not allow to analyze these flower patterns, but they may lit an additional light (sic!) on the meaning of the scene. I can also note the such a large convex mirror should be already an antique item for Caravaggio and his contemporaries. Obviously, many of them have’ve been still in use by the end of XV century, but much better, large and flat mirrors also existed, already for at least fifty years. So, this can be seen as an effort to make this scene look more archaic.
It is interesting that no matter how we interprete this painting, it’s still remains one of the first examples of using a mirror to illustrate the story from the New Testament. I already wrote about a couple of cases when mirrors were woven into the Old Testament stories, so this is in a way a new page in my mirror saga.
I do not know what kind of flower she is holding; my bet would be an edelweiss, but somehow I think that this can not be right. Again, knowing the flower and its (symbolic) meaning at that time would be a help.
So, I want to put not one but three dots as yet …
PS: More dots! More dots!