Paul Johnson

Darkness & Light

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane

By

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Caravaggio was a highly emotional man who painted pictures of a strongly emotional kind that inspired powerful responses in people. The sacristan of the parish church on the Piazza del Popolo, where hang his Conversion of St Paul and Crucifixion of St Peter, once told me how ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘dominated’ he had become by daily contact with these two enormously forceful works. One of Caravaggio’s aims seems to have been to demolish the barriers between the space of his pictures and the area from which we look at them, so that we feel we can step into them, and equally that the characters he portrays may step out and charm, mesmerise or menace us. I knew exactly what the sacristan meant because on my first day at boarding school, aged twelve, never having left home before, my overwhelming misery was suddenly lifted when I caught sight of a Caravaggio painting of Christ’s passion, the brilliance of which filled me with happiness. (The authenticity of this work has since become a matter of dispute, but it remains unquestionably a Caravaggio to me.)

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