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Caravaggio, Dior, and the Invasion of Grace

October 8, 2019


Every time I mention my love for Caravaggio’s paintings in devout Catholic circles, I feel as if I am causing scandal. “Wait!” I hear them saying, “You like the painter who was a murderer and used a prostitute as a model for the Blessed Virgin Mary?” During a visit in Poland, I was quickly dismissed by a well-known Polish actor for stating my admiration for Caravaggio. According to him, Caravaggio’s paintings are “spiritually empty.” I beg to differ. My admiration for Caravaggio’s work—not his life—and my conviction of his spiritual depth were recently reaffirmed when I visited the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) to see his Martha and Mary Magdalene. I cannot stop thinking about the painting and its depiction of conversion and the dignity Christ brings to the human person. I imagine it did the same for many, but perhaps not for my Polish friend. The exhibit next to the Caravaggio at the DMA was “Dior: From Paris to the World.” That the famous fashion designer was next to Martha and Mary Magdalene was providential, in that the DMA unintentionally transported viewers from natural to supernatural beauty. 

Controversy never seemed to escape Caravaggio, but neither did grace. Micelangelo Mersisi was born in the small town of Caravaggio near Bergamo in 1571, a time of violent conflict in most of Europe. Like the Europe of his day, Caravaggio was scarred, orphaned at the age of eleven. Caravaggio’s work, like his life, is marked by the same mixture of abrupt violence, ubiquitous darkness, and shining grace. He killed a notorious Roman pimp over a tennis match, ensuring his exile from Rome. His dramatic style is called chiaroscuro, a technique that makes use of strong contrast between darkness and light, giving his figures a dramatic realism in their three-dimensionality. Many Eastern Orthodox critics of Western Art find its realistic trajectory problematic in that it doesn’t focus enough on the luminous transfiguration of Resurrection (the eschaton) but on the fallen here and now which, in reality, is an empty distortion. But Caravaggio has a way of depicting the invasion of grace into the most fallen of human situations by not placing grace beyond the here and now but within it, just as the light shines amidst the darkness. His does not transcend this world but is placed within it. Typically, they depict a crucial moment within an individual’s life (conversion, martyrdom, discovery, etc.) when the eternal pierces through the finite. The baroque excessiveness seen in Caravaggio’s work tells us that God can be encountered in every nook and cranny of creation, and often this encounter has a certain violence to it; yet it is a grace-filled violence that ends in peace.

Now a brief discourse on the piece at the DMA. Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary Magdalene depicts the moment of Mary Magdalene’s spiritual awakening. Some Church Fathers believed Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, to be the same person. This identification of the two seems to be the Mary depicted in Caravaggio’s painting. The luminous Mary gazes out in a stare that conveys a deep assurance of God’s love for her. She has a new horizon for her life shaped by the Gospel. Her transfigured face seems to be arising from darkness. In disbelief, the darkened Martha counts on her fingers, as if reminding Mary of her numerous sins. Some say that Martha is listing the miracles of Christ, but I like the former interpretation given that Mary Magdalene seems oblivious to her sister’s limiting reminder. In addition, Martha’s face is darkened, possibly conveying her darkened mind. The painting is right at the moment of Mary’s awakening. She is still decked out in luxurious clothes with her bust on display for potential customers. She holds a mirror, but instead of admiring herself in it she is turned away. The mirror’s emptiness symbolizes the emptiness of her former self. But from that emptiness shines a light, the light of Revelation (the veil has dropped), illuminating the new horizon of her life and its possibilities. Her fingers almost touch the light like the prelapsarian Adam in the Sistine Chapel. In Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, we see the postlapsarian Adam curved in on himself, oblivious to the call of Christ. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, we see the new Adam rising from the darkness in Mary Magdalene, confident and oblivious to the logic of sin. She holds a perfumed flower (vanity) that has turned white (chastity), symbolizing her purified life in Christ. The signs of her former vanity (hairbrush, sponge, sexy curls) surround her, but they have lost their importance. She has discovered something better, something new: the Good News of God’s love for her. The sheer beauty of it all! 

It was only fitting that adjacent to the Caravaggio painting was the Dior exhibit—which makes me wonder if Qoheleth is the DMA’s curator. While I don’t want to depict fashion as sinful like prostitution, I couldn’t help but see Mary Magdalene as a Dior model who has suddenly seen the light, contemplating a new life beyond the vanity of this world. Hopefully, the crowds that came to see Dior ended their visit by contemplating the truth in Caravaggio’s spiritual art, filled with a vision of what truly lasts and their dignity in Christ. Like Flannery O’Connor, Caravaggio is an evangelical artist who conveys the shock of grace. Many might not see the divine operative in his work, reducing him to a bad-boy artist. But for me, Caravaggio is a master for our complacent age, painting the beauty of the Gospel with shock and awe.