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.

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