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Last Caravaggio is a 'must-see'at the National Gallery, London

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art's Correspondent

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, 1610.  Oil on canvas. Intesa Sanpaolo Collection. Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli  © Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / foto Luciano Pedicini, Napoli

Caravaggio’s last known painting, The Martyrdom of St Ursula, on loan to the National Gallery from Naples, is a lesson in narrative concision, a lesson in drama.

Powerful storytelling, intense naturalism, dramatic lighting, and emotionally charged theatrical paintings are the hallmarks of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), who is considered one of the most revolutionary and influential figures in art.

These qualities are plain to see in this focused and special exhibition. Two Caravaggios: his last, the St Ursula painted in 1610, from the Intesa Sanpaolo Collection (Gallerie d’Italia – Naples) – unquestionably the showpiece - and the National Gallery’s own late painting, Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, about 1609–10. A free exhibition, it’s on until July and marks the beginning of the National Gallery’s year-long bicentenary celebrations. The National Gallery will be 200 years old on 10 May.

Stories overlap and complement each other in this outstanding show: of the artist’s life and mysterious death, of the saint, and of the painting’s rediscovery and reattribution.

First, the story of Caravaggio’s final years – and few paintings are better placed to tell that tale than his last-known work, The Martyrdom of St Ursula, says Dr Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Acting Curator. Caravaggio's short tempestuous life matched the drama of his works, she explains, and it was during his final tumultuous years that Caravaggio made some of his most striking works.

Famously arrogant, rebellious, and argumentative, in 1606 Caravaggio fled to Rome in order to escape the death penalty, after killing a man in a fight. Four years of exile followed, firstly, in Naples, then on the island of Malta where, granted membership of the Knights of Malta in exchange for a painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, he got himself into trouble again. Next, a sojourn in Sicily, and then back to Naples. Another town, another brawl, this time one that left him badly disfigured. Through all, however, painting all the while, he wanted to return to Rome where important friends were petitioning the Pope for a pardon.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (detail), 1610.  Oil on canvas. Intesa Sanpaolo Collection. Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli  © Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / foto Luciano Pedicini, Napoli

Then, we have the story of Saint Ursula, the British or Breton Christian princess who, according to The Golden Legend (a widely-read 13th century book on the lives of the saints), returning from a pilgrimage to Rome via Cologne accompanied by 11,000 virgins (most probably eleven in number, due to a misreading), was offered an ultimatum by the leader of a band of Huns who were besieging the city, and massacred her companions. Captivated by her beauty, he offered to spare her if she’d marry him. The pious princess refused.

Typically, Caravaggio reduces the story to its essentials, focusing on the human tragedy and conveying the scene’s emotional power through a muted palette, pronounced chiaroscuro and choregraphed gestures. Unlike most paintings of Ursula’s story, Caravaggio does not go for quantity (multitudes of women or bodies); instead, he pinpoints the very moment of her martyrdom, when the quivering head of the arrow shot by the Hun pierces her heart. It’s a tightly cropped composition – the protagonists are improbably close together, and the bow impossibly close – but this draws us into the picture almost as if we are bystanders (as is Caravaggio, agape, peering over the saint’s shoulder). The light falls strikingly onto the essentials: the pale saint, about to collapse, lit as if by holy moonlight; the Hun, his red face a complex mix of emotions (fear/rage/regret?); and the glinting armour of the soldier. 

“It’s very Caravaggio. A symphony of hands. Guilty and innocent hands,” Whitlum-Cooper describes it. Ursula’s hands framing the fatal wound, the Hun’s holding the bow, the soldier’s armoured hand gently ready to stay her fall, and a bystander’s thrust in front of the saint in a futile effort to save her. This last for some reason had been painted out and was only rediscovered a few years ago.

That the painting was a work by Caravaggio was in itself a “miraculous discovery”. Following the discovery of an archival letter in 1980, the Saint Ursula painting was reattributed to Caravaggio. Prior to that, it was thought to be by one of Caravaggio’s many followers, Mattia Preti, for example, or Bartolomeo Manfredi.

Letter from Lanfranco Massa to Marco Antonio Doria. (ASNa, Archivio Dora D'Angri, II, 290, 9-10 (1)) © Archivio di Stato di Napoli

The letter (Archivio di Stato, Naples), displayed adjacent, describes the final stages of the painting’s commission. Written on the 11th May 1610 it was sent from Naples (where the picture was painted) to the patron, the nobleman Marcantonio Doria in Genoa, and it fills out some of tragic circumstances of Caravaggio’s last commission and last weeks. The finished painting was despatched from Naples on 27 May, to arrive in Genoa on 18 June 1610. Just weeks later, in July 1610, Caravaggio himself set out from Naples, hoping to return (from exile) to Rome where he believed he would be pardoned for the murder that had caused him to flee to the south. He died in Porto Ercole on 18 July 1610, never reaching his destination, and just days away from his pardon being granted.

Two 17th century leather bound books in a display case nearby are open at accounts of Caravaggio’s last days. One describes how “in a miserable state of anxiety and desperation he ran along the beach in the heat of the summer sun. Arriving at Porto Ercole, he collapsed and was seized by a malignant fever that killed him in a few days […] Thus Caravaggio ended his life on a deserted beach while in Rome people were enthusiastically waiting for his return.”

The painting is on view in London for the first time in 20 years, and shown at the National Gallery in such an impeccably stage-managed display that this is an absolute “must see”. I hope you can.


The Martyrdom of St Ursula

Showing until: 21 July 2024

National Gallery, London

More information:

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610)


Born Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio is the name of the artist's hometown in Lombardy in northern Italy. In 1592 at the age of 21 he moved to Rome, Italy's artistic centre and an irresistible magnet for young artists keen to study its classical buildings and famous works of art. The first few years were a struggle. He specialised in still life paintings of fruits and flowers, and later, half-length figures (as in the National Gallery’s Boy bitten by a Lizard) which he sold on the street. In 1595, his luck changed. An eminent Cardinal, Francesco del Monte, recognised the young painter's talent and took Caravaggio into his household. Through the cardinal's circle of acquaintance, Caravaggio received his first public commissions which were so compelling and so innovative that he became a celebrity almost overnight.


Dr Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, Acting Curator of Later Italian, Spanish and 17th-Century French Paintings, says: ‘The National Gallery is exceptionally strong in its holdings of works by Caravaggio, possessing an early picture (Boy bitten by a Lizard), a major Roman work (The Supper at Emmaus) and a late Neapolitan painting (Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist). With the generous loan of The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, visitors will be able to engage with late Caravaggio as we present this final painting to the public in London for the first time in a generation.’


National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, added, "Deeply affecting and tragic in tone, Caravaggio’s last picture seems to reflect the artist’s troubled and anxious mental state as he prepared to leave Naples and return to Rome. We are grateful to Intesa Sanpaolo for lending this late masterwork to the National Gallery."


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