I just finished reading Andrew Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. It's a thick book (442 pages), but it doesn't get dull, because neither did Caravaggio's life. Without going into a full summary, suffice it to say that while Caravaggio painted many saints, he did not live the life of one. He was often in trouble, and at one point in his life he had to flee Rome because he had committed murder.
And yet, in spite of his violent tendencies, Caravaggio was nevertheless an insightful artist whose work I admire. One of my favorite stories about Caravaggio relates to a painting he made of St. Matthew and an angel. The painting no longer exists because it was destroyed by fire during World War II, but we know what it looked like because we have photographs.
To me, the painting is a very tender image. The intimate connection between an ordinary man and a celestial being creates a nice contrast and speaks to what is actually happening here: divinely inspired words forming on a physical page. In a sense the whole picture is about heavenliness (in the form of an exquisite angel) and earthliness (in the form of an old, rugged-looking man with his blank pages and pen) coming together.
What I learned as I read, however, is that some of the things I love about the painting were actually very offensive to the people who commissioned it. The painting was originally intended for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, but neither the congregation, the priests, nor the wealthy patrons were ready for this image. They did not want to see a humble saint with his bare feet awkwardly sticking out in the middle of the painting, because bare feet implied poverty. By painting the saint without shoes, Caravaggio was welcoming the poor into the church and indicating to them that Christ and his followers had been ordinary, hardworking people like them. But the patrons weren't looking for a saint in plain clothes; they wanted their Saint Matthew to look like a dignified intellectual. They didn't want to see the angel gently guiding his heavy hand; they wanted him to look wise enough to write on his own.
The painting was taken down, and Caravaggio made a new painting of the same subject, which was deemed acceptable and still hangs in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi today.
The relationship between angel and saint is totally altered here, and Matthew appears to be merely listening to (but not physically guided by) the angel. There is no affection whatsoever between the two, and there is a formality to the the composition. Matthew's feet are still unshod, but they are neatly tucked into the shadows where they can scarcely be seen. Furthermore, Matthew's posture and facial expression indicate that he is a distinguished figure with great knowledge to share. The angel is just short of an accessory.
Whenever we censor a piece of art we are also acknowledging its power. Caravaggio's patrons were doing just that when they insisted that the painting be taken down and replaced. Bare feet may seem innocuous enough, but when those bare feet make a statement about who is welcome and who doesn't belong, those feet become dangerous.
Not every painting is provocative, nor does it need to be. Some artwork serves other equally valuable functions. When a painting does provoke a strong reaction, however, we are reminded of the degree to which artists wield influence. Caravaggio may not have been a good man, but he was a great artist, because he had the courage to address uncomfortable truths. Poverty was a problem in Rome, and he was right to say that the poor should be made to feel welcome. Even in his second, more palatable painting he still doesn't create a saccharine version of the story. The saint's feet, though they may be seen in profile and obscured by shadows, are still bare. He hints, however subtly, that the church is not primarily a place for those with prestige and power.