Caravaggio's Angels

Caravaggio's Angels.jpg

The Annunciation, Caravaggio, 1608-09

One day last week I left behind client work for an out-of-office lunch break. I scooted over to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for a lecture by Steven Ostrow, a professor from the University of Minnesota. The talk was entitled, Between the Sacred and Profane: The Angels of Caravaggio. It wasn’t so much that I was drawn by the focus on Caravaggio--truth be told, I know very little about this artist--but that the title of the talk captured my curiousity and imagination.

The lecture was held in the Institute’s Pillsbury Auditorium and to my surprise, although I realize I shouldn’t have been surprised, it was packed. I walked in with only a minute to spare and if a friend had not been saving a seat for me, I would have been sent to the overflow room downstairs.

The thing about Caravaggio and his angels is that unlike his fellow artists of sacred imagery, he didn’t paint angels to look like other-wordly celestial creatures, dispensing flower petals or strumming on musical instruments, pink-cheeked and blonde. When asked why he painted angels the way he did, he responded, Because I’ve never seen an angel.

He painted angels using human models and so they looked like humans but for the wings sprouting from their backs. In his paintings the angels are often on a cloud because he posed the models on a box, which became a cloud on the canvas. He didn’t create angels strictly from his imagination, but coupled his imagination with what he knew and could see, and we saw evidence of that in painting after painting flashed on the screen.

When the talk was over and the people in the audience stood to leave I looked them over and wondered why they had come. A small fraction of them were probably students from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design next door. Others were museum docents. Others were collectors or other sorts of unofficial students of art. Then there were probably some like me, not really there to fill out my mental files on Caravaggio but to take whatever was given and hope to use it somehow in my own work, which is never on a canvas.

It did indeed give me something to think about. Caravaggio is like most of us, using what he could know and see to extrapolate towards what is unknown and unseen. That’s what writers are doing with metaphor, analogy, parable, building blocks of reason or narrative. When I first took my seat in the crowded auditorium, I’ll admit that I wondered if I belonged in the audience, taking a seat away from a verifiable art student but but that concern quickly vanished. When the public is invited, the public should come. If we use what we know to create something new or to explore what is beyond our reach, why not expand what we know and have seen?