'Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy' by Caravaggio has traveled from Connecticut to hang next to the Detroit Institute of Arts' 'Martha and Mary Magdalene' until Jan. 13. (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)
St. Francis has landed in Detroit.
Starting today, “Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy” joins the Detroit Institute of Arts’ “Martha and Mary Magdalene” in a lush, if tiny, exhibit of the two Caravaggio masterpieces. If you like your art sensual and hauntingly human, this is a pairing you don’t want to miss.
What’s also cool about this demi-exhibit is that Caravaggio, who died at 38, left behind a relatively small number of paintings. To see two of his greatest religious works side by side is a rare treat.
Caravaggio, of course, is the artist who revolutionized Italian painting at the end of the 1500s with his powerful human forms and bold use of chiaroscuro — setting strong light and dark in close proximity, a technique that emphasizes shape and volume. With “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” for example, the latter’s brightly lit shoulder curves into deep shadow, generating drama as well as a startlingly credible figure.
But Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA Executive Director for Collection Strategies and Information, cautions that the Italian great did not invent chiaroscuro, but rather advanced its use.
“Before Caravaggio, it’s true other artists used dramatic light and realistic representation,” Salort-Pons says, “but the way he does is totally revolutionary, taking it to an extreme.”
“Saint Francis” comes to Detroit from Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. It’s a “lend-back” to thank the DIA for having loaned “Martha and Mary Magdalene” to a traveling show the Wadsworth organized last year, which it titled “Burst of Light: Caravaggio and His Legacy.”
If Caravaggio’s light is dramatic, so, too, are the bodies he creates, robust figures with more than a touch of the erotic — never mind that they’re playing saints or patriarchs. Fallen-woman Mary Magdalene, for example, is a richly dressed beauty with exposed cleavage.
Or consider the angel tenderly cradling St. Francis at the height of the latter’s religious swoon. “Dramatic, theatrical lighting caresses the figure of the young male angel,” says Robin Jaffee Frank, chief curator at the Wadsworth. “He’s very sensual and yet divine at the same time. Part of what Caravaggio does so well,” she adds, “is to mix the profane with the sacred.”
But the artist’s talents reach far beyond technique.
In the DIA’s painting, the modestly dressed Martha is manifestly trying to change Mary’s mind about something. (Indeed, the painting is sometimes called “The Conversion of the Magdalene.”)
“You can clearly see that these two women see the world very differently,” Frank says, “yet they’re engaging one another intensely and intimately. It reveals Caravaggio’s humanism and his profound understanding of the human condition. You understand that work with little need of explanation.”
'Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy'
Detroit Institute of Arts
5200 Woodward, Detroit
Free with regular admission
Call (313) 833-7900