Columbus Museum Of Art Opens Caravaggio Exhibit

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Photo of Caravaggio's "Ecce Homo." The original painting is now on exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art on East Broad Street.(Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art)
Photo of Caravaggio's "Ecce Homo." The original painting is now on exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art on East Broad Street.(Photo: Courtesy of the Columbus Museum of Art)

For the next few months, The Columbus Museum of Art is temporary home for a 400-year-old painting by Italian artist Caravaggio. The exhibit marks the first time a Caravaggio has been publicly displayed in Central Ohio.

“He was a revolutionary painter for his age,” says Columbus Museum of Art Curator, Dominique Vasseur, who added that the four foot by three and half foot painting, was likely commissioned for a private collection in the early 1600s.

“This is the ‘Ecce Homo’ which is Latin for ‘Behold The Man,’ which are the words that Pontius Pilate says is in the Book of John, Chapter 19, Verse 5, where he brings Christ out onto the balcony and presents him to the people of Jerusalem,” says Vasseur.

In the painting, Christ is holding a reed, his hands are tied together with rope. The crown of thorns has been placed on his head. Christ and Pontius Pilate are in the foreground.

“You know the contrast between the purity, the innocence of Christ, pale and white, with the dark, sort of sinister clothing and aspect of Pilate is really compelling in this work,” Vasseur says.

A roman henchman stands in back and appears to remove Christ’s cloak or robe.

“It almost looks as if his lips are parted as if maybe he’s whispering something nasty to Christ at this moment, something demeaning.”

Vasseur says the painting displayed at the Columbus Museum was commissioned at the height of the painter’s fame and at a time when the counter Reformation movement was in full bloom. Vasseur explains that during the Protestant Reformation many of the Protestant groups felt that art was bad, that it was idolatry and they took statues and paintings out of their churches. At the same time, the Catholic church  was trying to re-affirm what it felt was the power of art to communicate the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and its articles of faith.

“And in this counter Reformation movement, the idea was that the more honestly these stories were portrayed, the better. Well of course, Caravaggio seizes on this idea, but, of course, he’s portraying real people, real honest peasants in the streets of Rome,” says Vasseur. “He uses them as his models and of course, so Saint Peter has dirty feet and dirt under his fingernails. Its a little too much for the people who are commissioning these paintings. They like the idea of honesty but when they see it so directly and honestly portrayed as Caravaggio was doing it was just too much, so he did lose a lot of commissions that were rejected after he painted these works.”

Vasseur says as Caravaggio fame and creative power increased so did his personal recklessness.

“He would carry a sword and dagger without permission.”

The painter often got into brawls while carousing in Rome at night. In one case, Vasseur says, Caravaggio wounded a man who later died.  The Pope issued a death warrant.

“So, he actually stood the chance of being beheaded had he stayed in Rome and had been captured and so he leaves Rome, regrettably never to return again,” says Vasseur.

Caravaggio’s painting “Behold The Man” is thought to have been painted just before Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606. Now it hangs at the Columbus Museum of Art on Broad Street, surrounded by ten other period paintings from various artists, all of whom were influenced by the painter’s genius.

Tom Borgerding
WOSU News

Caravaggio’s work “Behold The Man” will be on display at The Columbus Museum of Art through February 5th as part of the city’s bi-centennial celebration.

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