A prolific artist, Caravaggio focused approximately 50 of his paintings on religious subject matter, specifically Christianity. Among this vast number of religious works is found a collection of paintings depicting the scenes surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ, never actually, however, depicting the actual dying or resurrection. Within these one can find seemingly little to no pattern as to why Caravaggio chooses to paint the specific crucifixion or resurrection scenes that he does in the order that he does. But, upon closer inspection the viewer finds a thread, however faint it may be.
Caravaggio obviously does not paint his gospel scenes in chronological order. No, instead he chooses to create an emotional hierarchy with the next painting being one that evokes a more powerful emotional response than the previous. This allows the viewer, an individual most likely familiar with the crucifixion story, to not only see yet another depiction of a well known story, but to be guided by the painter on an emotional tour through the key scenes leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross.
The following works out of chronological order allow the viewer to focus on specific scenes rather than the narrative as a whole. This way they are fully and completely confronted by the action which is so beautifully created by Caravaggio and forced to contemplate the emotion contained within that specific moment.
Caravaggio, Incredulity of Saint Thomas, c. 1602, oil on canvas, Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany
Painted in 1602, making it one of Caravaggio’s earlier depictions of Christ, this piece shows the scene found in John 20 where Thomas, a follower of Christ, declares that he will not believe unless he sees the marks upon the living Christ. Christ allows this to happen. This piece displays the power of Christ. It evokes a response of wonderment and awe from the viewer—explainable and primarily positive emotions. A risen Christ is shown, and even after his resurrection he continues to bring his followers closer to him and to bring sight to those who could previously not see.
Caravaggio, Taking of Christ, 1602, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland
Following a brief and isolated exposure to the power of the Christ, the viewer is violently brought back into the terrible events leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus is being taken away by the guards. Behind him one of his followers is in a state of panic. Judas stands on his left planting a kiss upon him, as he did during his act of betrayal. The viewer cannot help but feel like the man in panic. The Christ is being taken and this is not the way it was meant to be. But Jesus remains calm. This is the first betrayal of Christ prior to his crucifixion, and it is one that was destined to be and, while it brought upon the most terrible act in history—the crucifixion of the Christ, it was a necessary act to allow Jesus to take the penalty for our sins upon himself.
Caravaggio, Entombment, c. 1603, oil on canvas, Vatican Museums, Vatican
Following the business and chaos of Christ’s being taken to the cross, the viewer is again treated to an emotional shock. The dead Christ—the Son of God—is shown. Emotions run high, with one figure raising her hands towards Heaven perhaps asking why was such an action done to such a man. Another woman cannot help but cry. A third hovers her hands above the dead body. Two men hold him above the ground. The Christ is dead. How can one help but feel deep sorrow and defeat when being confronted by this scene. Hope is seemingly loss, for the savior has been sent to the grave by mere men.
Caravaggio, Ecce Homo, c. 1605, oil on canvas, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa, Italy, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, Italy
“Ecce homo”, Latin for “behold the man,” is the phrase used by Pontius Pilate in John 19 when he presents Jesus to the crowd. This piece depicts Pilate, dressed simply in modern black clothing, presenting Jesus as a man to the people who have so desperately called for him. While this work does depict an authority, someone entrusted with power and influence, wasting their platform so spectacularly, a deeper meaning is also found. Pilate, the man presenting with his hands, is not dressed as he should be, but is dressed like a man of Caravaggio’s time. This is because any man is capable at any time of sacrificing up their God in order to gain acceptance or fame. This piece calls the viewer to deeply search within themselves and realize that they also are capable of what Pilate so terribly did.
Caravaggio, Flagellation of Christ, c. 1607, oil on canvas, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples, Italy
This work, painted in the final years of Caravaggio's life, features the increasing violence found in the artist’s work, perhaps due to the downward spiral his life began to take. It depicts Jesus and the flogging he received at the hands of men. He is being violently tied to a post by one man while another prepares his sticks that he will use for beating and a third begins to beat the Christ. Jesus, however, remains calm beneath his crown of thorns and among intense pain. He knows what he must do and the viewer cannot help but see this. The viewer is put in the position of, after contemplating whether they are capable of so easily offering up their God as Pilate did, seeing what comes of this action. Jesus is beaten and bloodied and this should evoke a sense of shame and sorrow from the viewer.
Caravaggio, Denial of Saint Peter, 1610, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, US
After seeing the seeming chaos, power, and betrayal within the story of Jesus, the viewer is confronted one final time. This confrontation comes by way of Saint Peter, the subject. Saint Peter is responsible for yet another betrayal of Christ, but one perhaps more painful since it is essentially meaningless. Judas gave Christ over, but Christ was offered not by Judas, but by God the Father, making Judas simply an actor on earth carrying out the will of God. But Peter, he betrays Christ for no gain and no good reason. He denies him three times over and Christ knows of it. Caravaggio opens Peter up to be occupied by the viewer and to contemplate their betrayal of Christ not for any enormous gain, but simply for the convenience and ease of it. This betrayal is particularly terrible, for it did not need to occur, and yet, it did.