this past weekend i kept a promise with my eighteen-year-old self and spent a few days on an art pilgrimmage in new york. when i was eighteen, i traveled to new york city for the first time. i was the kind of child that had always idealized the city, and had fed myself on a diet of writers that described, in doting and unaffected detail, growing up a child of new york. i absorbed unabashedly as many museums, galleries, people watching, language listening as i could, and vowed that i would return at least once, every year. i thought: though i don’t know what it is i am to do with my life, i know that whatever tasks i give myself, i want an awareness of things that this city makes you aware. i want to be fed on the art of this city, and to know it. and so i have made the trek, and kept that promise to me-at-eighteen, for most of the last decade.
and this weekend i was excited to go because the premise of this pilgrimmage was to view the not-often-travelling caravaggios that are on exhibit at the metropolitan museum of art. i have been a person who has measured optimal aesthetic experiences by how many times i have been able to stand in front of one of this man’s canvases. i have seen him in florence, in rome, dublin, paris and now in new york, and my count is at 23. his supper at emmaus was the one i was holding my breath for this time around, and it did not disappoint.
there are two versions of this painting by caravaggio, but this one is the most moving to me. the image is spectacularly dynamic, and peter (it is peter, isn’t it, with the shell pinned to his shirt?) has his arms wide and i don’t know why–will he embrace christ in a moment or is he expressing surprise and awe?–and the other disciple is sitting down or standing up; i like being on the precipice of wondering if this is the moment christ has revealed himself as the resurrected to those in his company, or if it is the moment where it is realized before he says anything, and then having said it, vanishes (and thank you burke for the refresher on the story–a wonderful reference to have as i was actually looking at the painting).
i’d been reading leo bersani’s book caravaggio’s secrets prior to going up, and he has a section where he examines where the subjects of his paintings are looking, and what it means to rest one’s gaze where one does–and where one doesn’t. an excerpt:
it is as if everyone around the ambiguously centered christ of caravaggio’s work knew, as caravaggio himself seems to have known, that no one has the authority to center our gaze, to define its primary relation. that caravaggio knew that, and principally painted religious subjects in which relational primacy could not by definition be questioned, is immensely moving.
it is always difficult to tear myself away from such moments; it is a selfish wish of mine to be all alone and immensely quiet and reverential in front of such paintings. maybe this is why it is easier for me to view his work in places of worship. not because of the subject matter so much or that i adhere to the beliefs that commissioned the work in the first place, but because what i want more than anything in such a moment is to encounter it fully, personally and without distraction. i want to place myself in direct relation to the painting, and i sometimes will move around it, trying to find what spot i would have to be in to make a mark on that canvas. is this how far he stood to paint this ear? is this how close? there is no other painter i can think of that felt his paintings so thoroughly as he thought them into being.
i was lucky enough to be in florence at a time when two of his last (and largest in scale) paintings were brought to the city to be cleaned. before the restoration the city held an exhibition of just the two paintings, and i stood in the same space with one of the most moving images i have ever seen:
(shown here in situ, at the alter of st.john’s cathedral in malta.)
it is immense, even in the tall-ceilinged halls of the palazzo vecchio, where i saw it. 12 by 17 feet. i was moved because it didn’t look like a religious painting, that it looked like a common street killing. had he stolen a chicken? i was moved because the death of a common man set upon by those seeking vengence for a petty crime was as revelatory and meaningful in my looking upon it as imagining the subject portrayed as a saint or martyr. are we all of us saints and martyrs? is this one of caravaggio’s fractured fairytales? is either portrayal less valid than the other?
the only disappointment that i experienced was that one of the six paintings i had come to see had already been sent back the week prior, as it was coming upon the closing week of the show. but if one is to miss a caravaggio, then it is best that the one missed would be the painting that lives in the same country that you travel from to see them (i am speaking of his early painting, the cardsharps, which is housed at the fort worth museum of art in texas. yes, texas has a caravaggio painting. don’t ask me how).
and though i wanted to be full only of caravaggio (and leonardo da vinci’s beautiful little drawings of misshapen faces, also on display), it is hard to turn away from things at the met, and so also rushed through rooms full of rodin, chinese gardens, and stumbled, almost accidentally, on the stunning august sander exhibit that is there. and there were other galleries, and many photographs seen (writing on china coming up) but thoughts on photography will have to wait until the next post, because while i could not be full of caravaggio in that moment at the met, i reserve the right to do so here at the space in between.
My guess is the man in the chair is Thomas. You can see the wound in Christ’s left hand in the shadow near his chest, and the other hand shows just enough to shock the man rising in disbelief. Which gives the image a certain amount of narrative tension.
If you don’t recall the details, thomas was the unbeliever, the “Doubting” Thomas of cliched phrase. Christ showed the wounds in his hands as proof of his resurrection.
It explains the very accurately depicted near-terror of the figure in the foreground.
the identity of this saint has been bugging me, because i know the seashell is a catholic clue to his identity. i looked it up (a search for saints and their symbols), and it appears that the saint is, in fact, st. james, who was slain by king herod and his body put in a rudderless ship, which found its way to the coast of spain–and is now the famous site on the pilgrimmage trail st. compostela. a cockle or clam shell is often is his symbol.
speaking of doubting thomas, it is one of my favorite of all caravaggio’s paintings, and it is one i still have yet to view.