I don’t often choose to write about works of art that creep me out in a bad way. Or works of art that I harbor some mild hatred for. But this is one that bothers me, and I feel compelled to explain why.
I first saw this painting in a freshman-level Art History Course taught by a female Art-Nazi. I was repelled by it, completely unable to explain why. Even then, before I psychologically overcame the mental barriers that kept me from allowing myself to remember my own sexual assault when I was ten, I had a fondness for idealized nudes, even nude boys. None of the other paintings disturbed me in the way this one did.
It was explained in the textbook that Caravaggio was famous for his chiaroscuro style using strong light in a dark background to paint figures and faces. His work would inspire later greats like Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens. And his work would evolve into the works of the Baroque movement in painting.
So, what could it possibly be that turned me against this artist and this particular painting? It would take me years to figure out.
He was, in fact, noted for his brutal realism in his paintings. So, did he use only relatives as models? As near as historians can tell, he did not.
But, the Cupid or Eros in the painting that annoys me is bothersome because I am the one being painted in the middle of the darkness.
Cupid, even a nude Cupid, was a common thing for painters to paint in the late 1500’s. But other painters would paint him as an idealized, beautiful nude boy. Caravaggio’s Cupid may be a beautiful nude boy, but is in no way idealized. His teeth are crooked. His smile is devilishly smirky. Even his body is awkwardly posed and plumpish in places that are not what you would call a perfect “10” model. Yes, this boy is trapped in a pose that reminds me of being pinned down and helpless, told that I shouldn’t scream or things would hurt more.
And Cupid is supposed to be wielding weapons that will make you fall in love. But these wicked bronze arrows will pierce the heart and cause death. The bow looks like a mere stage prop, as do the instruments and armor strewn about as if left by someone fleeing this deadly child. The painting is not about love, but violence in matters of life and death. I hated it because it brought to mind my own personal trauma.
The actual model for this painting was a boy named Cecco (a nickname for Francesco,) and is identified later by historians as a young art student named Cecco del Caravaggio (Caravaggio’s Cecco.) Much of Caravaggio’s life is a mystery. He never wrote an autobiography, and no biography was written about him when the people who knew him were still alive to tell on him. Only police reports and the gossip that surrounded the Greatest Painter in Rome of his time are available to speculate from. But he was definitely a brawler, drunk, and eventually a murderer. He had the bad sense to murder a gangster from a wealthy family which probably caused his own possible poisoning and death in 1610. He was rumored to be a homosexual, and was accused of molesting models, even, likely, Cecco from the painting. It is easy to see why I came to detest this man and his work, simply because I was a victim of sexual assault.
But being a student of art, I never gave up on learning about this painter and his work.
And just as I forgave the man who molested me, I have come to forgive Caravaggio for his brutish ways and painting such a nude picture of me. I may never actually like his work, but I do see his skill and what makes him a celebrated artist.