How Looking at a Caravaggio Painting Can Change Your Life
A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.
Leonardo da Vinci
I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.
Almost twenty-five years ago, shortly after becoming a Christian, I came across a remarkable painting. I was at my school's library in downtown Chicago—Grant Park was right outside the window from where I sat. As I turned the page of a book, the 15th century Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus caught my eye. I was flipping through a bunch of books that I had grabbed off the shelves. I was just wasting time, waiting for a class to begin. Immediately, this painting caught my eye, because it wasn’t your typical “religious” artwork. In fact, it was almost too non-descript, and at first I didn’t realize that it was a painting depicting anything sacred or religious—it just looked like a painting of a few guys eating lunch together. I’ve only seen this painting in art books, and one day, I hope to venture to the National Gallery in London and see it up close.
That day when I caught sight of this painting, it began for me a new way of seeing Jesus. Something was special about this painting, made up of nothing more than oils placed with some thought and skill on the canvas. As I sat and stared at it, I realized why it held my attention, and I recognized its uniqueness. It was how the characters looked. When I open up an art book now and flip to the painting, I realize that it depicts the friendship of God in an astonishing manner. Back then, you know what caught my eye? Simply this: Jesus looks real. Gone is the blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a real Hebrew guy, olive skin and all. Caravaggio did something earth-shattering in his time as an artist—he painted Jesus like a real person; amazingly, he looked human and real to life. In fact, very uncommon for his time, most of Caravaggio’s models were peasants from local villages. Instead of painting the noble and the wealthy as his models for John the Baptist, Jesus or any other biblical character, he was painting the cobblers, fishermen and maidens of his day, and therefore, when it came to religious art, for the first time ever, his paintings took on a look that was authentic and true.
In this painting of Caravaggio’s, Jesus looks like a person, someone you could know, the guy next door. He seems approachable. This is the operative word—Jesus in this painting looks like a person. Before this, in the art world—for the artist, Jesus was never a person—he was just “God.” Most of the artists in this period were painting the “majestic Christ”—the unapproachable Jesus, the one on the throne, the one you needed to schedule by appointment. But none of this actually captured the biblical narrative, because as we know, Jesus really is a person, a friend, someone who is very approachable. With Caravaggio’s interpretation, you see this “friend” aspect come out onto the canvas. Jesus is just hanging out, eating a meal and shootin’ the breeze. When I saw this painting in my early years of being a Christian, this was the Jesus I wanted to get to know. You could get close to him, and this was what I wanted. Unlike other religious art I had seen up to that point, it captured Jesus as someone you would want to get to know. As a contrast, look at some of the artwork from this period or earlier, and you will notice that the characterizations of Jesus are oblong and uncomfortable. Let me illustrate some examples; you might have seen some paintings depicting Jesus like this:
Painting No. 1: Baby Jesus is pure white, and his face looks like he’s 59 years old—wrinkled and balding. He wears a smirk, a baptismal gown and a bratty look.
Painting No. 2: Jesus has his kingly pose, no smile, and wearied look. It looks as if he might want to think about getting a prescription for some Prozac.
Again, these portrayals of Jesus aren't realistic. They don’t tell the story that the Bible tells. These works of art do not depict Jesus as he really is. However, Caravaggio was getting into it, painting as if he was there, sitting at the very table, and showing you something sacred and important. Again, this is the Jesus we are going to try to encounter. The real one.