Caravaggio in the Vatican

One of my all-time favorite painters has to be the Baroque painter, Caravaggio and one of my favorite paintings of his is in the Pinacoteca inside the Vatican Museums. The work by Caravaggio in the Vatican is called the Entombment of Christ which is a huge painting measuring 120 inches x 80 inches (300 cm x 203 cm). The painting shows Christ being moved to his tomb after his crucifixion. 

Caravaggio, or to go by his real name, Michelangelo Merisi, was a fascinating character. He was born on the 29th of September 1571 in the town of Caravaggio close to the city of Milan (hence the name he became known as). Little is known of his early life but after studying under the artist Simone Peterzano, he moved to Rome in 1592 at the age of 21.

After moving to Rome he struggled to make a name for himself. However, he was introduced to an artist, Giuseppe Cesari, who was Pope Clements XII’s favorite artist. Cesari employed Caravaggio to paint mostly still life’s and flower paintings. Knowing that it was important for Caravaggio to make a name for himself, the artist hustled to make connections and he was soon taken in by the Cardinal Del Monte

In 1603, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint the enormous painting, The Entombment Of Christ, for the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. This is the very painting that is now in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican Museums but there is still a copy of the original painting in the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella at the Chapel of the Pieta today.

entombment of christ by Caravaggio

The painting consists of 6 figures: the dead Christ being moved to his tomb, John Evangelist supporting Christ on the right wearing a red cloak, St. Nicodemus; and from left to right are the three women, an elderly Mary (the mother of Christ), Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas with her hands raised. It is said that the image of St. Nicodemus looking straight out at us in the painting is modeled on Michelangelo, the painter of the Sistine Chapel. The painting is another perfect example of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro style which is the separation of light and dark and arguably a style he certainly mastered, if not invented.

detail of Caravaggio in the Vatican light and dark

The painting took a year to complete. Caravaggio had many influences for the Entombment of Christ, in particular, Raphael’s Entombment of Christ, today in Galleria Borghese and the late work of Michelangelo’s final Pieta, know as the Florentine Pieta.

It has to be said that this painting was done during the prime of his working life even though he was only in his early 30s. Not long after completing this painting, his life took a major downward spiral. Caravaggio was famously bad-tempered and always carried a dagger with him, which was illegal. On the 28th of May, 1606 he murdered a man named Renuccio Tomassoni not far from the Pantheon.

The reasons behind the murder are unknown and it is not even clear if Caravaggio intentionally killed him. However, from that moment on until his death in 1610, Caravaggio was on the run. He moved to Naples, then Sicily and finally on to Malta.

Caravaggio was eventually pardoned by the Pope and chose to return to Rome. The reasons for his death are also unknown but while sailing from Naples, he made it as far as Port’Ercole, where he died on the 18th of July 1610 at the age of 38. Possible reasons for his death were sunstroke. Another cause might have been lead poisoning, as there was a lot of lead in paint in those days.

painting on the wall in the Vatican Museums

Of all Caravaggio’s paintings, the Entombment Of Christ must go down and one of his all-time masterpieces and is a treasure and a must-see in the Vatican Museums. As an example of the impact it has had, artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and Paul Cezanne made important copies of the painting years later.

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