Thursday, December 08, 2011
Viewing Caravaggio's "Burial of St Lucy"
Last week the conference I attended in Syracusa, Sicily, was very close to the Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa, where Caravaggio's "Burial of St Lucy" hangs. Caravaggio was a troubled soul. He fled Malta after killing a man, and seemed to spend the rest of his life painting commissions for anyone who could help him stay out of jail. He died at 38, and some theorize that lead poisoning could have sped his demise, and perhaps contributed to his erratic lifestyle. (Note to self - When working with multiple paintbrushes, do not hold spares between teeth.)
This painting is notable for a number of things. First, at about 18 feet tall, it's enormous, but he finished it in less than a year. The lack of background detail certainly played a role in making that possible, but I don't get the sense that he sacrificed background for the sake of speed. Instead, this reads to me as if he never intended to draw our attention away with superfluous information. I find it interesting, also, that St Lucy is more or less central to the painting, but not really to the narrative of the painting. It's almost as if she's a bit player in her own burial. The gravediggers are much more important to Caravaggio, for some reason, and even the priest who's administering the rites has a more central position and is rendered in greater detail than Lucy herself. Contrasted with other painters' portraits of saints, one has to wonder if Caravaggio was questioning the relevance of saints compared to regular, everyday people like the gravediggers.