Considered by many to be the forefather of the Baroque period in Italian art, Milan-born Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was a prolific painter whose legacy can be enjoyed in several churches located in the city of Rome. Known for street brawling, chiaroscuro, and a penchant for flouting prevailing artistic conventions, Caravaggio quickly became known as the best painter in Rome after fleeing there in 1592 to avoid possible repercussions of a fight with a member of local law enforcement.
Even though Caravaggio scandalized some of Rome’s citizenry by using prostitutes to pose for depictions of Madonnas and Saints, he was nonetheless commissioned by various houses of worship to produce art to decorate their walls. Many of his works can still be viewed in the locations where they were first hung. Following are four Roman churches where Caravaggio’s work can be seen.
1. San Luigi dei Francesi
Built between the years of 1518 and 1589 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, San Luigi dei Francesi is the national church of France in Rome. The walls of its Contarelli Chapel are lined with three paintings featuring St. Matthew. The three paintings are:
The Calling of St. Matthew
The moment when Matthew was chosen by Jesus Christ to follow him is depicted in this painting. Caravaggio’s characteristic use of chiaroscuro provides excellent contrast between the light and shadows shown and gives the painting three dimensional properties.
Matthew and the Angel
Also called “The Inspiration,” this exceptionally beautiful painting shows Matthew receiving inspiration from an angel. The angel is depicted swooping down from above while Matthew is at his writing table. Both figures are swathed in light against a dark background and wearing flowing robes.
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew
The final painting in this series depicts the moment immediately prior to the execution of St. Matthew. Caravaggio included a small self portrait of himself in the top left corner of this highly dramatic painting.
The church is open to the public and viewings are free. However, the paintings each are equipped with coin-operated lighting systems that illuminate the paintings for those who want a brightly lit view. During certain times of day, a high window on the rear wall of the chapel provides the area with bright natural light.
2. Church of San Agostino
The Church of San Agostino was built during the early Renaissance. A stunning and noteworthy structure in its own right, its front facade was built from marble taken from the Coliseum and features a fresco of the prophet Isaiah created by renowned Renaissance artist Raphael. There is one Caravaggio painting on display here. It is:
The Madonna of Loreto
Sometimes called Pilgrim’s Madonna, this painting depicts an unshod Virgin Mary and and a baby Jesus with only a thin blanket to cover him. The model for the Madonna was a well-known Roman courtesan. Two ragged peasants are kneeling down in postures of abject adoration before the Madonna and her child.
3. Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini
Commissioned in the year 1626 by the Pope Urban VIII, the church of Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini is an ornate structure that features a massive underground crypt that holds the remains of thousands of friars as well as Roman citizens whose families didn’t have the means to provide them with proper burials. It houses one painting by Caravaggio, although some would dispute the authenticity of the work.
St. Francis in Meditation
This controversial painting is believed by some camps to not be the actual work of Caravaggio, but documents exist that point to it being an original work by the baroque master. One of the artist’s contemporaries testified during a lawsuit that he had lent Caravaggio the very robe that was worn by the man who served as the model for St. Francis. This is another work in which Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro truly shines. St. Patrick appears to be rising from a dark, chaotic storm with his face and hands illuminated along with the book and the human skull at his feet.
4. Santa Maria del Popolo
The Cerasi Chapel at the Santa Maria del Popolo contains two works created by Caravaggio that were commissioned by Monsignor Tiberio Cerasi in the year 1600. They are:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter
This painting depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter by Roman authorities. St. Peter is shown being placed upside down on the cross because his last request was that the crucifixion take place in this manner so that it wouldn’t imitate the death of Jesus Christ. The painting makes powerful use of symbolism by portraying three strong men having extreme difficulty lifting St. Peter and the cross that he’s tied to.
The Conversion of St. Paul on the Road to Damascus
This painting depicts St. Pauls’ conversion on the road to Damascus after falling from a horse. Again, symbolism is highly evident in this painting through the way that the horse is looming over the prone Paul, whose eyes are closed and whose arms are outstretched towards the Heavens. A groom is holding the horse as it stands over the supine Paul.
Churches aren’t the only places where you can see Caravaggio’s works in Rome. There are plenty of museums and galleries in Rome that house the many paintings of the prolific artist. However, there is something about viewing a work of art in the very space that it was originally commissioned to fill and where it has hung since the artist put the final brushstroke on the canvas and framed it that is almost a mystical experience.
Other advantages to viewing art in churches include the fact that they are much less crowded than galleries and museums, so there is no need to compete with the maddening crowd for a quick glimpse of the old works of a master, and churches also offer free admittance to the public. Perhaps the greatest bonus of all is that these old churches are architectural works of art with rich histories and traditions.