Caravaggio: The Scandalous Crimes of a Baroque Artist

Could the dramatic atmosphere of Caravaggio’s artworks be a reflection of his tumultuous personal life?

Dec 31, 2023By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

caravaggio scandalous crimes baroque artist


Caravaggio is known for the techniques he used in his paintings to create a dramatic atmosphere. He was the pioneer of tenebrism, the technique used to create extreme darks and lights within a painting, allowing for a dark and moody atmosphere. However, his artwork was not the only dark aspect of his life. Caravaggio’s life was full of gambling, drinking, and crime. In 1606, this behavior would culminate in committing murder, forcing him to flee Rome and seek new areas of Italy to create artwork and chaos.


Caravaggio’s Dramatic Style

caravaggio calling saint matthew painting
The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1600, via San Luigi dei Francesi


The Calling of Saint Matthew is an example of Caravaggio’s dramatic style and, subsequently, of baroque art in general. The atmosphere is dark to make the minimal lighting more visually powerful. The scene depicts the story of Saint Matthew when Jesus finds Matthew sitting in his seat and tells him, “Follow me.” Jesus is situated in the shadows, just underneath the light from the window. The light comes to rest on Matthew’s face, who appears surprised at this visitor’s request, wondering if it is he to whom Jesus is speaking. Jesus points at him to confirm that Matthew is the one Jesus is addressing.


Caravaggio’s paintings often consisted of religious imagery, yet he dressed the subjects of his work in contemporary clothing. This was because of the counter-reformation. It allowed biblical scenes to be more relatable to contemporary viewers. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Protestant iconoclasts were firmly against depicting religious figures in art and often destroyed much of it in their local cities. Italy, as the seat of the Catholic Church, remained Catholic. The Pope sought ways to counter the reformation, and he knew that art was a powerful tool, especially for the illiterate who needed images to tell the stories of the Bible. The Catholic Church was one of the largest and most important institutions to commission artwork from prominent artists, and Caravaggio was one of them. It would be ironic when he eventually would be forced to flee Rome to avoid execution for his crimes.


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Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1596, via The Uffizi Gallery, Florence


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Caravaggio’s paintings were not always religious in subject, however. He often created artwork depicting mythological figures and stories. During the Renaissance, Humanism became more widespread as a philosophical way of life, with a stronger emphasis on the value of the human experience on Earth, more so than in previous centuries. The last time Humanism played such a dominant role in the Western world was in Ancient Greece and Rome.


The rebirth of classical values carried into the centuries following the Renaissance, including the Baroque era. To paint mythological scenes was to boast knowledge of the subject, an indication of the artist’s rich educational background and training. Scenes like these were often commissioned privately to be displayed in aristocratic homes for social gatherings. Caravaggio painted Bacchus in 1596 for Cardinal del Monte. Bacchus is reclined, relaxing with a glass of wine he offers to the viewer. Surrounding him is fruit aplenty, and his hair is surrounded by a halo of grape leaves. He is the god of wine and madness. It is possible that this god’s reputation was appealing to Caravaggio, whose life was full of such things.


Caravaggio’s Reputation

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Narcissus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599, via Palazzo Barberini, Rome


Caravaggio’s personal reputation was never admirable among his contemporaries due to his reprehensible drinking, gambling, and fighting habits, but he likely would have held some form of prestige. After all, he was a prominent artist in his day, taking commissions from high-ranking individuals and institutions in positions of spiritual and political power.


Narcissus’s story is an ancient warning against the offense of vanity. Narcissus peers into the water, enamored by his reflection and trapped infinitely by it where he sits. There is no background to the scene, only Narcissus and his reflection. Narcissus’s reflection engulfs him, and the rest of the world falls away, so strong is his love for himself. There is nobody else, Narcissus is alone. It is a gloomy story with a fittingly dark depiction by Caravaggio.


Violence in Caravaggio’s Work

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Judith Beheading Holofernes by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599, via Palazzo Barberini, Rome


Judith Beheading Holofernes is one painting of many by Caravaggio that depicts a beheading. Beheadings are a common theme, as is violence itself, in Caravaggio’s work. Caravaggio had a proclivity for violence. He was often seen in the tavern, drunk, gambling, and picking fights with those around him. Despite being taken in by his prestigious patron, Cardinal del Monte, he was regularly arrested for various crimes, such as throwing a plate of artichokes into a waitress’s face or slashing the cloak of an opponent at a tennis match.


These crimes culminated in 1606 when an argument at a tavern escalated into a sword fight in which Caravaggio would kill his opponent, Ranuccio Tomassoni. It is unclear what the deadly argument was about, with some accounts explaining that it was over a tennis match, while others say it was an argument over a woman that both men were interested in. Nonetheless, the outcome was the same for Tomassoni. The violence that unfolded that night is reminiscent of the violence he displays in his artwork.


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Detail of Judith Beheading Holofernes by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1599, via Palazzo Barberini, Rome


Judith Beheading Holofernes is a scene from a biblical story. Judith is a beautiful Jewish woman living in the city of Bethulia, which the Assyrians have besieged. She leaves the city, pretending to flee for her life and telling the Assyrian general, Holofernes, that he is destined for victory. Intrigued, he invites her into his tent, where she proceeds to attack him and cut his head off to bring back to the ruler of her city, paving the way for a Jewish victory and saving her people from the destruction of the Assyrian army.


Caravaggio’s painting is an exceptionally bloody depiction of the event. Judith and her maid seem calm, nearly serene in their expressions, while Holofernes’ expression is horrified at his naivety that would seal his fate. Blood spurts out from the wound, projecting onto his white bed linens. The angle at which his arms are situated suggests panic, a recognition of his surprise that a seemingly harmless woman with encouraging words could commit such a violent act.


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The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1608, via Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta


When Caravaggio killed Tomassoni, he was forced to flee Rome or face execution. He made his way to Naples and then Malta, where he would once again find artistic success, despite his exile. While in Malta, he was commissioned by the Order of the Knights of Malta to paint The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The painting is violent, moody, and dark in the typical Caravaggio style. The frozen movement of the scene offers the viewer tension as John the Baptist is held down by his executioner, and the others watch in horror at the violence occurring in front of them.


A woman is ordered to place a large bowl on the ground and is seen in the act of setting it down, creating a sense of tension between one moment and the next. The woman beside her holds her head in her hands as a sign of grief. Blood begins to pool next to the body of Saint John, his throat having been cut already, making the beheading that is about to occur even more violent, as the death has already been completed.


In return for the commission, he was given membership to the Order of the Knights of Malta. His membership created hope that he may one day be pardoned for his crimes by the Pope. However, these hopes were not to be realized in Malta when he was expelled from the order for getting into a physical confrontation with a fellow knight. Once again, Caravaggio was forced to move. He traveled throughout Sicily, taking commissions along the way, until he finally returned to Naples. Unsurprisingly, while in Naples, his temper caused more problems.


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The Seven Works of Mercy by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1607, via Pio Monte Della Misericordia, via Naples


Despite Caravaggio’s troubles, his paintings did not stray from religious subjects. In The Seven Works of Mercy, painted in 1607, Caravaggio depicts all the charitable works expected of those who follow the Catholic faith. The Catholic faith believed that charity and good works got people into Heaven, while Protestants believed that faith alone would allow for entry into Heaven.


Caravaggio was still playing a role in the counter-reformation and still hoped for a papal pardon. The good works are listed in the Book of Matthew (25: 35-36): “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”


It is an impressive painting. The figures in the painting all have a role in representing the good works required of Catholics to reach Heaven. In the background, two men are carrying a dead body to his tomb, which all Christians should have, according to Catholic belief. A woman feeds a prisoner with her breast, alluding to the ancient story of Pero, who visits her father in prison and keeps him alive by breastfeeding him. An innkeeper directs a patron towards his inn to provide shelter for the stranger, argued to be Christ in disguise. In the foreground, St. Martin of Tours has given his robe to a naked man with a twisted leg. In the back of the scene, Samson, a biblical figure with physical strength but moral weakness, drinks his fill. It is possible that Caravaggio saw himself in Samson’s character.


The Tragic End of Caravaggio’s Life

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Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1610, via The National Gallery, London.


Towards the end of his life, Caravaggio wished to return to Naples but needed to get back into the Grand Master’s good graces to do so. He sent him a painting, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist, hoping the Grand Master would approve his return. It is a grisly painting showing Salome presenting her brother, Herod, King of Judea, with the head of the saint on a shining platter. He picks the disembodied head up by the hair, an expression of smug victory on his face. Instead of being welcomed by the Grand Master for his gift, Caravaggio was surrounded by men at arms, beaten, and had his face slashed open by a blade. Disfigured from the incident, Caravaggio finally received word of his pardon from the Pope. At last, he could return to Rome.


However, Caravaggio would never reach Rome. After receiving news of his pardon, he set sail for Rome. Upon landing, however, he was arrested by mistake. The Spanish guard had been waiting for another knight, but Caravaggio was arrested instead and held prisoner for a short amount of time. He was quickly released but had lost all of his personal belongings in the confusion. He searched frantically under the hot sun for his belongings, running all the way to the city of Porto Ercole. It was here that he became ill with a fever, likely malaria, and died in July of 1610.


Caravaggio lived a life of disrepute, but despite his unsavory habits and proclivity for violence, he was a great and well-known painter whose artworks have stood the test of time. His violence was a fault in his personal life. However, it allowed his mind to create beautifully violent scenes for his patrons to enjoy and reflect upon, continually fascinating those who view them.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.