Caravaggio’s unsettling images at the National Gallery of Canada


In the first room of the big summer show Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, which opens on June 17 at the National Gallery of Canada, hangs the famous painting The Musicians, on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There’s no more arresting example of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s uncanny ability to create drama by capturing natural expressions and informal poses. The young musicians—two gazing out at us, two with downcast eyes—are seated closely together, and yet each is achingly alone.

There is a disturbing sadness about them. “The lute player seems lost in the act of tuning his instrument,” says the text stenciled on the wall beside the painting. No—he just seems lost.

He looks emotionally hollowed out. The troubling quality of the painting was pinpointed with unflinching insight by Ingrid Rowland, a University of Notre Dame architecture professor and art historian based in Rome, in an essay last year in the New York Review of Books:

Perhaps it is time to recognize these boys for what they are, to realize that the message in their troubled eyes is not “Come hither” but rather “Help me!”—that is, if the light in their young faces has not been extinguished altogether, as it seems to have been in the used-up redhead who cringes in the rear guard of The Musicians.

Rowland notes that scholarship identifies the model with the lute as a Spanish castrato named Pietro Montoya, who lived in the Roman palace of Cardinal Franceso Maria Del Monte, where Caravaggio also resided for a time. Life in the cardinal’s retinue was, on the evidence of the paintings Caravaggio produced for him, not consistently uplifting.

Of course, the painter’s life story is celebrated for such gritty, racy elements. As Sarah Angel recounts in her excellent story about the NGC’s Caravaggio show (in the issue of Maclean’s that appears on newsstands tomorrow), he was a hard-living, sword-wielding rebel who died too young while on the run from the law.

Caravaggio applied revolutionary technique to show us moments of danger in a way that draws on his intimate experience with Rome’s late-16th century demimonde. After seeing the numbed pain of his Musicians, I thought his depictions of the sacrifice of Isaac—there are two versions in this exhibition—took on another layer of meaning.

The stark terror in the eyes of a screaming Isaac in one leaves  little doubt that the artist had seen mortal fear on the faces of real boys. And Abraham’s capable, firm grip on the knife reminds us that Caravaggio had also closely observed one possible source of such fear—the way a determined hand, perhaps his own, holds a blade.


Caravaggio’s unsettling images at the National Gallery of Canada

  1. My missus studied a few art history courses at uni and she loves Caravaggio. I think many people like Caravaggio because he is mix of nutter and genius, which often go together, and people like to psychoanalyze him. I just think he has interesting paintings. 

    You really need to see art in person to really get a feel or appreciation for it, don’t you? I remember going to Van Gogh museum and we went specifically to see Sunflowers. Sunflowers was ok but Almond Blossom knocked my socks off. I couldn’t believe how different it looked in real life. 

    “An example of the Oedipus complex is Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, as provided by Laurie Schneider Adams, author of the book Art and Psychoanalysis.  Dealing first with Caravaggio’s past, documents tell he was repeatedly in trouble with the law, being arrested numerous times for acts of violence.  Eventually he was exiled from Rome for killing a man. 
    This taste for violence seems to have been transferred to this painting. This is only emphasized knowing that the decapitated head, which seems wholly alive and dead all at once, is Caravaggio’s self-portrait. Adding an increased complexity to this image is the identification of David as Caravaggio’s young lover. Caravaggio identifies himself as the victim, as defeated by homosexual love.  

    This places him in dependency on the younger man, with his head literally in the figure’s hands.  As later explained, Goliath is a father figure, so this scene also displays the dangers of identification with his father.  Caravaggio is older, decapitated, and symbolically castrated.”


    “…. as a Spanish castrato named Pietro Montoya”

    Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

    Sorry Geddes, could not help myself.

    • Elitist.

    • Thanks for the added information. Intriguing.

  2. Geddes – if you read this, The Agenda on TVO is doing Caravaggio tonight. The missus – hi honey! – told me to let you know. 

     “He has been called violent, grotesque and sordid. But he has also been called brilliant and genius. Caravaggio is one of the great Old Master painters. The Agenda debates the glory of Caravaggio.”

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