In the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, he writes,
Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us; according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed.
Eyewitness accounts guarantee the truth of the incredible story he is about to narrate.
Dante begins the Inferno thus,
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direst: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover’d there.
Dante, too, has an incredible story to tell and is no less anxious than Luke to claim the truth of the events to follow. He himself saw these things with his own eyes. His experience is not limited to the underworld, and Paradiso begins with a similar statement,
His glory, by who might all things are mov’d,
Pierces the universe, and in one part
Sheds more resplendence, elsewhere less. In heav’n,
That largeliest of his light partakes, was I,
Witness of things, which to relate again
Surpasseth power of him who comes from thence…
If you ask me, what St. Luke and Dante are up to is different. The former is a conscientious historian, the other a poet. But the role of witness is equally important. It is taken for granted that eyewitness accounts establish the veracity of a historical thesis and, as anecdotal evidence, provide explanatory power as the witnesses are multiplied. Does the fact that over 30,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima give pause? Certainly it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Eyewitness is no less important to the artist. Often, we consider art to be a purely imaginative, creative activity, as if a painting springs whole and entire from the genius of the artist’s mind. Perhaps we forget that the imagination requires raw material before it becomes fertile. In order to be creative, we must first encounter the real world, memorize our multiplication tables, study the lives of those who have gone before, you know, the sort of boring education stuff we now skip in our primary schools in favor of unrestrained creativity. However, if we never sit at the feet of history, master the facts, study our grammar, and witness the touchstones of culture, our imaginations will starve for lack of food. This is true for every pursuit in life and is no less so for the artist. Dante understood that his poetry was but a humble witness that revealed pre-existing metaphysical truth.
This was widely understood by most artists up until very recently and there is a tradition of including the portraits of patrons in the paintings they commission, thus placing them virtually into the very scene itself. The donors have somehow come to participate in the reality the artist expresses. So, too, is there a tradition of artists including their own portraits in their pictures. Often, this is misunderstood as vanity but I would suggest the underlying reason is to emphasize the importance of the eyewitness.
Michelangelo Caravaggio famously reacted against the late Mannerist style by creating realist depictions that were highly dependent on the use of models. For instance, in his paintings one often sees the same courtesan portraying different saints. The saints depicted are humble, barefoot, and there is often dirt under their fingernails. This caused quite a commotion at the time because it was viewed by some as crude and disrespectful. It was seen to minimize the transcendent.
In fact, Caravaggio seems to have been attempting to accomplish quite the opposite. As Andrew Graham-Dixon argues in his biography (Some of the criticism below is paraphrased from his work), Caravaggio’s paintings are the perfect visual representation of the Catholic Reformation as idealized by St. Charles Borromeo, who valued a presentation of the faith that had clarity, drama, and aroused personal devotion. Caravaggio presents us with canvases that minimize distraction and intellectual games in favor of striking images that communicate a single, highly developed insight. He is witness to a Biblical story and strives to bring what he has seen in his mind’s eye to life for the viewer. Through his personal witness, he is able to communicate powerfully the pathos and strangeness of a God who acts in history. As the incarnate Christ, God is both hidden in the natural world as a human being and, for those with eyes to see, the transformative figure in all of human history by which we are made like God.
Okay, I’m wandering a bit from my original intention with this post, which was to show a few paintings and comment on Caravaggio’s presence as eyewitness. By specifically seeing what he himself sees we gain the truth of the historical scene. Here is a portrait of him by a friend, see you if can find him in his own paintings:
Betrayal of Christ
Here we see him at the edge of the see holding a lamp. He is straining to see the action, peering through the Gethsemane night. Our Lord is visibly flinching at the kiss of Judas. Notice, however, that the main light source is not coming from the lamp but from somewhere to the front left. Caravaggio sees but dimly. He knows a tragedy has occurred and strains to understand the manner in which the gentle Lamb of God gains victory as a pure sacrifice amongst brutish sinners.
Martyrdom of Matthew
My favorite painting by Caravaggio. He depicts himself as a catechumen running away as fast as he can (the furthest back from the frame), pausing only for a moment to look back in horror. St. Matthew is vested in priestly garb and had been preparing for baptisms. In the early Church, catechumens were baptized nude in a pool of water. The pool was often directly in front of the altar. We can see St. Matthew’s left arm hanging down over the edge. He has already been injured and there is blood seeping through his vestments, perhaps dripping down and mingling with the baptismal water. The blood of the martyrs is equivalent to the drowning waters of baptism, much like the blood and water both spring from the side of Our Lord. St. Matthew himself seems to be bathed in heavenly light during the moment he is murdered by a false catechumen. It is the murderer who has become the baptizer. Perhaps Caravaggio feels as though his mortal sins (of which he claimed many, including trying to smash a man’s face in over artichokes) are keeping him at a distance from the communion of saints.
David with the Head of Goliath
Here is the ultimate eyewitness. It is Caravaggio himself who has been slain. The last sight his eyes beheld was God’s chosen avenger launching a stone his direction. The sadness that is now in David’s eyes was perhaps already present during the battle. Why must we sin and bind ourselves over to death? Why do we grieve God so? For the artist, this question is intensely personal and meditating on the theme brings the point home to me, too. Perhaps it ought to be my head in the hands of the boy king.
The Raising of Lazarus
On the run from the Knights of Malta, moving from town to town, Caravaggio depicts himself in this altarpiece just above the outstretched hand of Our Lord. The hand is reminiscent of the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It reaches out and brings new life. Caravaggio, however, looks the opposite direction. The darkness is closing in on him and he strains to see the light at the entrance of the tomb.
Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
This is thought to be Caravaggio’s last picture and at the time he was in exile for having committed murder. In fact, his output at this time had been curtailed by severe facial injuries received in a revenge attack. He himself is convalescing at the same time he is depicting a holy saint who has been mortally wounded not out of revenge for her vice but for her purity. Saint Ursula has been shot with an arrow by her spurned lover, the King of the Huns. She looks mildly surprise and yet statuesque, beautiful, glowing with inner joy. Caravaggio peers over her shoulder and into the visage of the King. What is it that causes a man to murder?