* Caravaggio and I [A Short Story]

I could not take my eyes off it at the Met.  There have been many paintings I could not take my eyes off of, but this one, so large, tremendous, not why it was as captivating as I am saying––I do recall having said as I walked into the gallery where it was hanging, My God, How big it is . . . Caravaggio’s La Deposizione, Christ being placed in his tomb, the two Mary(s) behind with their hands raised in epiphany–dead Jesus, the man, the glowing Christ still. 

How long ago was it? I should be able to answer, but cannot. I can check. It was the visiting Vatican Collection–I went more than once;  more than one time each time I made my way to this portrait, this painting, this most magnificent example of Italian baroque. [what is the baroque]

Merisi

II

I say I can see me flipping through the catalogue of the Vatican’s art collection in the book store, the book I bought and brought home to show my father. I still have it on my book shelves having reacquired it after my father’s death, having left it with him when I moved from home. What does this say? I am not sure what it is supposed to say. I am here to talk about Caravaggio and his painting of the dead Jesus being placed in his tomb while the two Mary(s) hover his body with their hands raised in a typical iconographic gesture of epiphany, as I have already said. Mary called Magdalene and Mary, Mother of God–I could not take my eyes off of it, the painting, off of Him, the figure, then other figures too, in the scene on the canvas. Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, the first Christian–what it really means to be a Christian–what does it really mean to be a Christian (and I can do without the mocking jibes I used to hear from non-Christians in New York when I was a boy and some did not realize I was around to hear them say what they actually said and would deny they ever have said or have believed, do believe, do say among themselves, just as black people and white people are sure the other is privy to things said by people they like, love even respect that neither wants anyone other-else to hear . . .).

It was huge, the painting by Signore Merisi; but its hugeness alone was not the reason for my fixation. Yes, there it was–yes, it; a larger than life painting, in a gallery, how far into the cattle drive I cannot recollect. I doubt I will ever recall. Yes, it–it–Caravaggio’s La Deposizione, it. The depositing of the dead Christ–no, not dead Christ, but dead Jesus? Of course. Christos cannot die, I remember a Greek Orthodox friend had insisted over coffee at the Greek diner just off Brooklyn College Campus on Hillel Road sometime in the early nineties. So, what was it beside it being there as large as it was–Caravaggio’s naturalism? What does that mean–also the vibrancy he lends to Christ . . . the living Christ–Life indestructible. The Greeks had two words for life, the one, bios, was for life destructible, life that had an end; the other, zoe, was for life indestructible, life everlasting, life eternal . . . Jesus is not Dionysos–I hate stupid conflations that arise from an intellect too weak–or is it will? The will is weak in matters of learning by those who are attracted by simplistic answers and responses and conclusions where real intellect persists to the truth, yes there are many truths as well as Truth.

Dead Jesus–the living Christ–Christ everlastingly alive shines through the body of Jesus being deposited into his tomb . . . and tomb is from the French tomber, to fall. Everyone’s tomb, his final fall. The finality here is the end of bios, the continuation of zoe. In fact, the resurrection is the reanimation through the everlastingness of Christos for the human person Jesus. The natural course has been reversed; the Divine has put a hold on Nature.

Jesus was he, no, Jesus is He, capital ‘H’ He. Do I need to examine the pronoun references for God–God Is He, the Holy Ghost is It. Can God be He, She and It? Too many will shout No!. I disagree–God is He, She and It . . . and I am not using these pronouns here in a one-to-one correspondence with the Persons of God, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost (you want to say spirit–say spirit).

Is not was–Jesus is, Jesus remains, Jesus persists, Jesus is forever present tense; Jesus is, if I want to borrow from Aquinas. Deus Est; Iesus Est.

The Jesus I saw different from the Jesus that is, the Jesus painted by Caravaggio being one and the same and completely other than every Jesus seen in painting by whomever whenever–the Mass Card my father had received from my mother’s cousin Barbara after my paternal grandmother died, Jesus on the cross being removed from the cross. The Descent from the cross not The Depositing in the tomb . . . I saw–no, I say I watched–yes, I watched Jesus being placed into his tomb, this depositing of Jesus after his descent from the cross. It was enormous, again, the painting, and in it, the body of Jesus, also enormous, also it, the body–but Corpus Christi, It or He–We?

Larger than life, of course, it would be larger than life on the canvas. Body of Christ; Body of Jesus–not exactly the same thing. With Communion we enter into Mystical Union in the Body of Christ. We chant the words themselves, Body of Christ . . . speak but the Word and my soul shall be healed . . .

The light from Christ in Signore Merisi’s  La Deposizione was–what was it? Questions beget questions I have said before, will say again. Was it intense? The light in the painting. Light from a non specified source–the kind of light Merisi borrows from Tintoretto, for sure. It was supposed to be intense, mysterious, something evocative of the scared–should I capitalize the word ‘sacred?’ Of the divine–the presense of Divinity, thus the gesture recognized in the two Marys upraised hands; epiphany, as in the Feast of Epiphany, The Revelation to the Gentiles on January 6th on the Catholic Calendar. Yes, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Holy Mother, are gesturing their recognition of divinity, it is a Revelation to them, and how Jesus is illuminated on that canvas, in that scene, and how He seems to be illuminated from within–He shines.

You have to take notice whether you are Catholic or not. You do not need to be devout or practicing to understand what is happening on that canvas, in that frame, that scene, that place, in and on are mutually reciprocal, a dynamism itself. I could not imagine an Atheist, a Muslim or a Jew not being impressed; a Hindu, a Buddhist or one or another Animist would have to be impressed if he had the slightest appreciation for what we still liked calling at the time I saw this painting, artistic genius. I have no idea what that means now. I do not pretend that I did then. But you do not need to be Catholic as Signore Merisi understood in himself. Impression of this sort is what I call universal, if the person is opened, not full of prejudices and preconceived notions . . . first empty your cup otherwise no more will go in.

 I do understand from experience here in New York City, in Public School, in my college days, in my personal life, in my professional occupations over time; in my travels to other cities and regions across America–and what it is that I do understand is that most Americans, Protestant Americans, will expend great energy to understand and respect Oceanic Spirituality, for example, but preclude themselves from doing the like with Catholic spirituality, and allow themselves most often condescension and  mocking.

I could say, Fuck them, and I would even like to say this, but it would be useless; it would be as useless as saying fuck you to the Irish who used to condescend to Italians, as I remember in Brooklyn, ass-hole scum-bag shanty bog Irish condescending to Italians was always a joke to me. But then I am sure the Irish have their truths about the fucking guineas–in fact, I am Irish-American and Italian-American and have often had the fuck-everybody mind, including WASPS, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, everybody, anybody with a group mind set to say fuck me, but invariably including the Micks and the Guineas, and I am not saying that everybody from any of the fore mentioned groups has group mind, but there are so many of every people that there will always be enough mother-fuckers from any people being bigots of one persuasion or another. There were plenty of people who said fuck me whether it was me they were saying fuck me to or the fact that I was not like them. Does it matter? If you accidentally shoot me in the heart, or shoot me in the heart because I stepped on your toes, or because I am not Latino or because I am white (and year in and year out in America, a much, much higher percentage of the white population and a much, much, much greater number of whites are shot by non-whites than blacks are shot by non-blacks), does it matter? I am still dead.

Caravaggio now matters more, and will matter in spite of being dead. Caravaggio and I are the focus. Let’s not get lost on a tangent–I do not really know how one could get lost on a tangent. A tangent is a theoretical straight line intersecting a point on the circumference of a circle and one that extends for infinity . . . is it the infinity part that leads to the assumption of lostness?

I had already known about this other Michelangelo–Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio–before my visit to the Met for the Vatican Collection. What was it about this painting on the depositing of the dead Jesus in his tomb, the slab, the corner of the stone illuminated by a light you could not trace the source of; the two Mary(s), Mother Mary and Mary called Magdalene–what was it about them, about the iconography, the alterations of light and dark that faded to black in places along the perimeter and in the back ground?

I do not continue to ask what, what, what–I ask only for you, a convention of the form. I cannot say exactly what it was. Every time I think about this I imagine it must lead to another essay, yes, another trial of ideas, of memory, of images randomly passing in the mind, of what I think. But thinking is not randomly passing images in the mind. How many times do I have to say this?

Back in the early 80s, the visiting Vatican Collection was certainly one of the big deals in New York’s museum going world; there were only representative pieces from the ages brought to New York. The whole of the collection would have been impossible to let loose. The numbers, the size was prohibitive.

How to say it–say it again, the same way, repetition once more over again: Michelangelo Merisi’s Dead Jesus was tremendous, both in size and impact. The painting was taller than I was, wide enough to hide two of me or more.Yes, as I have already said herein, I watched the painting–the figures vibrated, they were . . . Christ in it was also tremendous, not just in size, but in Caravaggio’s representation, the vitality he gave to the forms, the overall theatricality of the scene, the tenebrious movement of the elements in their places, the vibrating contrasts between light and dark . . . the age of the baroque should be especially known for the vitality it gives to the representation of flesh; the age of the Baroque champions the naturalism of flesh, the sensuality of flesh . . . one giant leap for mankind.

I watched this painting; I said this above. I did not just look at it. I could see the influence something like this could have had on later painters, perhaps where Reubens had gotten some of his notions of how to represent flesh–as I have said herein, the painting was larger than life-sized, as is, of course, the figure of Jesus, who as the Christ, must be represented as larger than life, even when represented dead. This was not a problem, though, for Merisi’s naturalism; there are various naturalisms, of course, and this one is effective. Baroque painting must be watched, not merely looked at, if you understand what I am saying here?

The was-then and the is-now are perpetually contingent. This enlargement of a figure in representation can also be found in Michelangelo Buonaroti’s Pieta, where Mary, if she were stand, would be about 8 feet tall. But this is only an if she were to stand. She does not stand in the marble; that fact is only implicit, not explicit as some like to say. But there is something about this woman in her extreme pity and piety that enlarges form, ourselves we feel being aggrandized by emotion, by love, by affection, by tenderness or sorrow. Mary holding her dead son in her arms there in Michelangelo’s marble becomes the effective representation of a sorrow that transcends sorrow; it becomes a larger, grander sorrow, perhaps a universal sorrow. Hers is the sorrow of all mothers. Mary is gorged by it. The Mother of Sorrow is swollen beyond any normal or humanly possible sorrow, for hers is not only the sorrow of a mother for her son, but of the Queen of Heaven for the Incarnation of the Son of God. Looking at Caravaggio’s painting must have given to viewers the imagined possibility of representing motion, of actually capturing it–it impresses you that way.

Caravaggio invests his Jesus with a strange vibrancy although the figure is obviously of a dead man–let us allow this persistence in repetition to become motif–the stirring of the living Christ that the human Jesus can barely house. Even in death, Christ remains vibrant. His executioners could kill the man Jesus, the human Jesus, but as the Incarnation of the Son of God, that agency of divinity housed by the flesh of Jesus–this could not be extinguished. The Christ shines through the form of Jesus; the dead Jesus is illuminated by this divinity.

Caravaggio is dealing with both the humanity of Jesus and his followers and the divinity of the Son of God, Incarnate in Jesus. The naturalism of the figures was astounding, and nothing like it had ever been achieved in painting before him, Caravaggio. In statuary, perhaps–but then statues were three-d. There is a profound depth of the figures; there is a thick representation on the two dimensional canvas, a kind of statuary in the painting.

The spiritualism–what could this mean to the age of the Baroque, not ours, where the term means nothing and too many other things, some of them beside the point. We have no handle on our words, or on our use of language in general. Speaking and writing have become a lot like throwing dice, haven’t they?

The mood of the painting–what could mood mean other than mode, from which it comes? There are declarative moods and moods of doubt we call subjunctive; but then these are linguistic references, overly determined. Chiaroscuro painting meant what–light and dark, opposing forces, oppositional placement?

Contrapuntal arrangement, as in Vivaldi and Bach are each associative in meaning with chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro has everything to do with point counterpoint composition in music. Goethe had once said that architecture is music frozen in stone; this could be said of statuary, no? Have a look at Rodin, or Bernini, or Michelangelo, or any of the representative Greek and Roman statues at the Met. Among the Vatican Collection was the Porta Augustus statue of the young Octavius just before he becomes the August ruler of Rome. As I walked into the gallery I caught it centrally placed and I can swear to this day, I saw it breathe.

The dead Christ–the light, the use of shadows, a circumambient perimeter, black–all fades to black as in German Expressionist cinema, as in Gothic horror novels–there is a lot of blacking out in Gothic horror from the 18th century. Caravaggio uses black in his paintings in a way reminiscent of the dark, or the areas of black, used by De La Tour in his “Penitent Magdalenes”–there are more than one–and later by Fritz Lang, particularly in his film M. Notice Lang’s use of the extremes of the monochromatic scale to set psychological tones. You do know that Caravaggio as we call him signed his paintings, when he did, M. I am not herein trying to confuse ages or cultural or artistic currents; I am merely drawing analogies for the purposes of understanding. The Baroque is the Baroque; German Expressionism in film is German Expressionism in film, and for the most part, never the two together as one.

In this vein of thinking or imagining, I should say, can we ask if there is something Gothic about the crucifixion–about any crucifixion–any representation of the central moment in Christianity–the horror. Is it that different representations of the cricifixion are all of them in one way or another Gothic? Of course not. But I do understand how the confusion can be made–we can see something of the elements of what we call Gothic in many representations of the Crucifixion–the event of any crucifixion possessing what could evoke Gothic feeling in the age that produces it–do we say that currents of Gothic run through Romanticism? Yes, we do.

But then, we are talking about the depositing of Jesus in his tomb–in Crucifixion we are talking about unimaginable suffering–and for Jesus this suffering was as a man nailed to the beams of wood that make the Cross–slow suffocation is the means of dying, it is slow torture. The effect of horror, of how it strikes a Gothic eye would be–how do we convey this? Is there a parallax on the horizon in the mind where all senses of horror converge as one?

Is there then a close relationship between the Baroque aesthetics and the Gothic aesthetics? I imagine there is, although not completely and never in any one to one correspondent way. There is definitely something Gothic (as we understand the word from the fiction of the late 18th century; the style, the form, the genre-determined delineations that we find in works such as The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, Manfred, The Cenci, Frankenstein, even large swaths of Wuthering Heights) present in German Expressionist films of the silent 20s, recurring in American films of the 30s, particularly horror films such as The Mummy or Dracula, the novel itself from the Late Victorian Gothic revival which was a manipulation of the aesthetics of the High Middle Ages, as seen in architecture, particularly. This, of course, was in another and earlier animation, present in the cult of sensibility of the 18th century, a kind of medievalism present in what was later called Gothic fiction.

Of course, this medievalism was a contrived sense of what seemed to be medieval, or a contrived use of medieval motifs, a number of them remaining and persisting throughout what we call Romanticism. But then, just what would evoke this idea of an age long gone were the ruins of that age which then formed an image grotesque? The idea of ruination of the past lingering in the present became part of the aesthetic; this is not present in what we might call Baroque sensibilities. Ruination becomes a theme explored in Romanticism . . .

Dracula finds itself firmly in fin-de-siecle Victorian English/Irish literature as it also does in a continuum of Gothic fiction, perhaps even as a precursor to all horror stories as we understand the genre of horror today, or over the last century? Moreover, there are discernible lines that overlap among these artistic currents: there is significant mutability among the movements herein discussed; or, as aforementioned, the negotiated agreements among the artists of the particular times and places where these movements do overlap, do share something found in one another.

Yes, Gothic Horror of the 18th century, 17th century Baroque painting and German Expressionist silent era films of the 20s all share certain features that are alike; their motifs, their metaphors, their signs and their symbols do have currency exchange values. I insist on we when I want you to consider opinions I conceive in a posed omniscience; of course, I do not want you to side step my intellectual manias; I want you and I together in the more comfortable, and perhaps the more usefully rhetorically editorial we–yes, you and I see these overlaps among the movements (?) I have herein listed. We understand they have points of contact, even if you have never before considered them or even imagined them.

Of course, I am not referring to the complete diapason of Baroque tragic emotion–although the two Mary(s) in Caravaggio’s entombment, both in the effective expression of epiphany, are representative of a particularly Baroque emotional register; each in a moment captured with hands raised in epiphany, as we also see in Minoan figurines nearly two thousand years earlier–the revelation of God-head is beheld. Yes, it is the vibrancy of Caravaggio’s dead Jesus that reveals the divinity of Christos, Son of God incarnate in the person of Jesus. There is a complex of contrary forces and emotions, passions more precisely exhibited together in the figure and the light used to illuminate the figure of Jesus and the emanation of Christos.  The use of light in Caravaggio, his unique chiaroscuro is what I am focussing on in any allusions to German Expressionist films or any mine-en-scene in Gothic horror fiction or Romantic poetry in parallel alongside Gothic horror. This light has its effective beginning, it could be said, in the tenebrismo of Tintoretto, and yes, you should examine prints of Tintoretto’s most prominent works to understand just how baroque artists such as Caravaggio came to use light the way they did.

I am not herein going to continue a discussion of Gothic fiction, whether in its 18th century varieties or in its appropriation by Romanticism and just how much Romanticism was informed by the Gothic, particularly in how the Gothic was also informed by the Cult of Feeling, of Sturm und Drang and the literary Cult of Sensibility. But back to the central point, experience, idea herein presented: Caravaggio’s La Deposizione is more than one of my favorite paintings–it is one on the list that never comes off the list. If Singore Merisi had only painted this, we would still be talking about him; I would still be writing about him. I am also writing about me . . .

I am writing about me in everything I write–writers never write but their autobiographies, all of a writers writing episodes in the epic that is anyone’s autobiography, no? You imagine otherwise? Respond, if you will, with letter, essay, diatribe or tirade. I am still a bit undecided on the differences, numbered and explained, as well as the general difference between the two articulated.

So then, your question should be, Who am I? What am I doing? What have I said and how have I said it? What does it mean to say these things as I have said them? What kind of person says what I have said? What if you were a man or a woman who has said the things I have herein said, how would you get on a bus, how would you order a slice of pizza at Lenny’s on 86th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Please, let there be no snide remarks from Protestants, Asians, Jews or African-Americans who might not be as intelligent or as enlightened as they assume they are out of arrogance, hubris or ignorance–the latter more likely; but why do I imagine I need to say what I have said, you might also consider, and if you will, you might want to separate the expositor from the author, unless your critical skills are at minimum, right alongside your stunted imagination.

Nonetheless, the fore mentioned persons I am really talking about are certainly not as intelligent or enlightened as I have found many from any of the four fore mentioned groups to be, none of which I belong to demographically, and I say demographically alone because all of us belong to one human family, if you can abide the cliche and anything else trite that goes along with many of the received ideas we have about ethnicity and race in America. Americans are horribly narrow and narrowing in the patterns of free association they confuse for thinking, as if randomly passing images in the mind or playing hop-scotch with words has ever equalled thinking.  This of course includes America’s liberals and not just her conservative troglodytes.

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