The Last Caravaggio.

Room 46, National Gallery.  18th April to 24th July 2024.  Free.



Sometimes it is more rewarding to spend extended time with one great example of an artist’s work than to work through a whole exhibition.  This is the opportunity being offered by the National Gallery’s free show The Last Caravaggio.  The painting, on loan from the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection in Italy, is The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula.  It is displayed in a medium-sized, dimly lit room with supporting material.  Actually there are two pictures – more on that later.

Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / Luciano Pedicini, Napoli.

It is thought that Caravaggio completed The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula in May 1610, only two months before his uncomfortable and impoverished death.  Characteristically the picture has strongly contrasting areas of light and dark and dramatically posed, lifelike figures compressed into a small space.  Saint Ursula was a fourth-century Christian princess who chose death rather than abandoning her faith and entering into marriage with an elderly, enemy hun.  He shot her with an arrow.  In Caravaggio’s depiction they are unnaturally close together: he to the left still holding his bow; she to the right, her hands clasped just beneath the arrow lodged in her chest.  The closeness serves to emphasise their contrasting psychological states.  The elderly hun’s face betrays regret as well as ardour; Ursula’s a quiet acceptance of the fate she has chosen.  She is surrounded by other men, some trying to prevent the awful deed from happening, another supporting her in her torment.  The painting effortlessly draws our eyes towards the faces but also towards a row of hands.  The hands are those of the murderer (old and fleshy), Ursula (deathly white) and on the right, one in armour.  A telling concoction of male strength and violence and its deleterious effects.  Also, mysteriously, a dark hand in the centre.  This hand, trying to intercede but unable to prevent the tragedy, might be that of the man immediately to the left of Ursula but in my opinion is more likely that of an unseen figure hidden in the darkness.  This hand only emerged from the murk after the painting was restored in 2003.  The face immediately above Ursula’s shoulder is thought to be Caravaggio himself –unable to intervene despite the several violent episodes in his own life.  Interestingly there is no blood anywhere in the picture, yet the only substantial departure from its monochromatic scheme is bright red.

It was only in 1980 that the painting was conclusively attributed to Caravaggio following the re-discovery of a letter referring to its commission by his patron in Genoa.  This letter is part of the exhibition.  Also on show is another late masterpiece from the National Gallery’s own collection: Salomé with the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10).  I think this is actually the stronger of the two pictures but let that not detract from the great pleasure of seeing Caravaggio’s final work.  Find a quiet time of day, make use of the little bench the gallery has provided, and soak up the wonders of this compelling work of art.

© Graham Buchan 2024.