After weeks of hearing my cultured friends talk about it and having seen it advertised on Dublin bus (a quirky departure from the usual blockbusters), I decided to bite the bullet and go to see the Caravaggio art exhibition in Dublin.
At this point you might ask what business does a pesky law student have in going to an art exhibition? While it’s not often acknowledged, many professionals view the practice of law as an art in itself. For a proud legislator, succinctly and concisely written statute is just as much art as heavenly prose written by the most esteemed poet. A barrister ironing out the chinks in his argument is no different to a painter brushing over the rough edges in his masterpiece. For the judge the release of his judgement is just as delicate as the arrival of a newborn baby in the world.
The first painting I encountered by Caravaggio on entering the gallery was the ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’. From first sight, you knew immediately that it was a class above the other paintings. What is most striking about it is the chilling realism of it. Every facet of the boy seems to be affected by the bite. His arms are contorted in a violent spasm and his brows are furrowed in confusion. The most shocking thing about the painting is the empty, abject look in the boy’s eyes that blankly stares out at you. It’s tempting to imagine what Caravaggio was trying to convey in the painting. Was it simply a stark showing of the boy’s pain caused by the lizard bite or was it an allegory for the boy’s loss of innocence through sin? The contrast of the lizards and the roses in the picture seem to aid the latter interpretation.
The next Caravaggio painting on display was ‘Boy Peeling Fruit’. The serenity of the boy sitting down preparing his meal is a welcome contrast to the tension in the earlier painting. There’s something to be said about artists and their obsession with fruit. Seemingly the talent of an artist is measured by their ability to paint still life. Their depictions are always nearly there but never perfect.
One of the most enthralling pictures in the exhibition was the ‘Supper at Emmaus’. This painting depicts two of the disciples suddenly recognising the risen Christ at the foot of the table. The two disciples are visibly overcome with emotion. The younger one is on the verge of jumping out of his seat, not indifferent to an excited county supporter after winning the All Ireland. The older disciple is completely blown away by the sight and stretches out his arms in jubilation. The most interesting figure is the third man in the top corner of the painting. With his face covered by a shadow he gazes at Jesus with a nonplussed look – oblivious to what is happening before him. His scepticism is a stark counterfoil to the other two disciples whose faces are illuminated by the light of faith.
The most curious part of the painting is how it weirdly invites the observer in. On the table is a bowl of fruit that is about to slide off the table and one is almost tempted to reach out and push it back in. Another disarming aspect of the painting is the fact that Jesus is painted without his beard. On first looking at the painting, I did not realise that the figure was intended to be Christ. Maybe Caravaggio was being deliberately ambiguous? Was he trying to say things aren’t always as they seem? Was it an implicit criticism of the general public’s’ lack of faith?
Overall, I would heartily recommend a visit to the Caravaggio exhibition. It continues until 14th of May in the National Gallery and it costs €5 for students. Caravaggio is without a doubt one of the world’s greatest ever artists. His paintings do not simply provoke thought but also spur a person to pray, whether intended or not.
Sean Hurley Arts & Events Writer