‘Those Angel Boys’
A secret in Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy
This edition of ‘Paintings!!’ is about some paintings by Caravaggio. Though images and details are embedded you can find a very high resolution image of the painting here, which I recommend giving a good hard stare. You might find it easier to read this post on the Substack website.
This isn’t my observation. It’s not even my theory. I had it off a painter in Florence, who had it off a friend of his who lived in Naples, who had it off the guy who first noticed it.1 When I heard it though, it was like being let in on a piece of particularly destructive gossip. The urge to tell everyone I knew was overwhelming.
When I first encountered Caravaggio’s enormous painting in the Neapolitan church of Pio Monte Della Misericordia, I found it unseeably complicated. My impression was of chaos, movement, the ravishing flesh of a young man’s slender bicep. An old man sucking for dear life at a woman’s breast. Tumbling angels. Madness! My friend tells me she used to sit in front of it for hours as a young teen: ‘those angel boys were my first loves’.2
‘He was a lovely, lovely boy – but he just wasn’t right for the part.’
It’s a scene of extraordinary commotion: demanding your attention at the top is a tangle of angelic flesh and two mirrored sets of wings, one white with black fringes and the other black with white highlights. (The Virgin Mary, her face blurred above them as she looks on, is easier to see in reproduction than from the church floor, if I’m remembering correctly.) In the painting’s lower half is a crowd of human figures who personify the seven works of corporal mercy: to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to bury the dead.
The setting: it seems to be late at night in a tall, dark street by a prison wall – but when I try to stand up inside this idea the ground shifts beneath my feet. The men with the corpse, at the back – are they two feet away from the woman breastfeeding a prisoner, or five, or ten? When I focus on that distance the perspective opens up, deepens, before swiftly compressing when the eye moves on to some other detail: Samson’s face, roasted practically to leather, as he slakes his thirst from the jawbone of an ass; the velvet swoop around St. Martin of Tours as he offers his clothing to the naked man in front of him; the flatly articulated toes of the corpse itself, a uniform shade of pallid yellow.
Is this slight separation of the burial deliberate? Only six works of mercy are outlined in the bible: ‘For I was an hungred and ye gave Me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger and ye took Me in; naked and ye clothed Me; I was sick and ye visited Me; I was in prison and ye came unto Me.’ (Matthew: 25, 35-6.) The burial of the dead was a medieval addition to this catalogue. Perhaps this is iconographic propriety: burial in its rightful place at the back, a recognition that our first obligations are to the living.
But look how crammed in they all are. Why do it that way? Their togetherness might have mattered to Caravaggio, who was initially commissioned to do seven individual paintings around the chapel, but who persuaded his employers to accept a work that combined them in a single scene. (This feels immensely significant – but I’ll stick to saying ‘might’ because there are obvious practical reasons why you might prefer to do one massive painting rather than seven large ones.) These figures are practically falling over each other – but are they aware of each other? It’s not clear if the woman standing by the wall is catching sight of the nobleman giving up his clothing, or keeping an eye out for the cops. (What she’s doing was, I’m told, illegal.)
Whatever awareness – or ignorance – these figures have of each other feels stagey: they aren’t citizens on the street but participants in a tableau vivant. There is even a sense, looking at the raised (tall?) figure at the very back, that the street itself is raked like a stage. This isn’t quite a real place then, but to me it still feels hot in this painting, despite Caravaggio’s realist froideur and flash-frozen light. This paradoxical impression – a hot-and-cold feeling – comes up often in writing on Caravaggio. One way of putting it might be that the eye is cold enough to see just how hot a human body is, though this immediately feels much too neat.
Let me try and pin an idea in place: the figures in The Seven Works of Mercy are allegorically conceived, but everything about their handling argues against the idea that they refer to anything beyond themselves. These are very specific, very human bodies, sutured up in dirty skin and sloshing with ruddy fluid: water, sweat, milk, spit. ‘Who would have thought’, say the red, alcoholic nose of the innkeeper at the far left, ‘we had so much blood in us?’
‘So I says to Mabel I says–’
I used the word ‘realist’ above, and I admit that it felt like a defeat. I suppose I used it with the basic sense that a painting is more or less ‘real’ to the extent that it looks more or less like a photo. An anachronism, and a lazy one at that. More useful might be the continuum between a brushstroke that hides itself in the object depicted and one that registers itself as substance, admits it was shaped by a physical movement.
At certain points, we see Caravaggio moving along this spectrum in the representation of individual objects. In the picture’s top left corner, for instance, a billowing sheet of fabric twists around the figure of a descending angel. At the top, it is made of material like one you might fold or float coolly up over a double bed; if you follow it down though, its representation undergoes a shift in register. The opaque folds of cloth become sketched and calligraphic, five or six wisps of white smoke that gestures airily towards the idea of ‘fabric’. This passage is both self-confessing and denotative: paint that admits itself as paint, and that moreover feels like shorthand, something that stands for something else.
what is that orb doing there?
We can also see this very deliberate change in Caravaggio’s handling of the wings of the left-hand angel. The wing pointing upward belongs to the same world as those of the white-winged angel on the right: it is fluffy and quilted, a thing of thick and darkly speckled feathers. The wing that points downwards, by contrast, is rendered in shimmering monochrome splodges. Why shift into watery impressionism?
Well, I think there is a reason, and it relates to this much stared-at painting’s fabulously well-kept secret.
When Caravaggio painted the Seven Works of Mercy he was on the run, having been condemned to death in Rome for the murder of the wealthy gangster Ranuccio Tommasoni. He was sheltered and aided by the aristocratic Colonna family, and shortly after arriving in Naples had secured this prestigious commission. The painting was supporting him: it kept him fed, watered, sheltered, clothed. In this sense, when he arrived in Naples, he began to a paint a sort of negative self-portrait, of all the things he needed, and all the things the painting was giving him.
Perhaps it was out of gratitude, then – or maybe for the sheer virtuoso fuck of it – that Caravaggio decided to hide a little tribute to the city that saved him in this painting which, once seen, can’t be unseen. You can find it just above and across from the left-hand angel’s head: a seascape of the full moon rising over Mount Vesuvius, the angel’s watery wing doubling as its reflection across the bay of Naples.
The Seven Works of Mercy is housed in the church of Pio Monte Della Misericordia in Naples, on a street you won’t be able to avoid walking down if you visit Naples. Entrance costs very slightly more than you will be happy to pay for one painting. Thank you for reading this edition of ‘Paintings!!’, a newsletter about paintings. The next one will be shorter.
This friend of a friend wrote a book about The Seven Works of Mercy, which you can buy here, and which includes this observation. Like I said, not my idea. Thank you to Tom for telling me about this in the first place.
Caravaggio’s young men are electrifyingly gorgeous. Whatever his sexuality – a taste for women, men, boys and possibly a spell of pimping have all been put forward – he had a keen understanding of beauty’s savage indifference to the viewer. To see it is to know you can’t possess it, that the whole premise of possessing it is a bust. This is how we look at the people we love as teenagers: across agonising distance. The most extraordinary painted male face I've seen is in Caravaggio’s painting of the calling of St Matthew, in Rome. Here, Jesus looks, as my sister says about Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, ‘so beautiful you think your heart is going to fall out of your chest’.