The Azerbaijan State News Agency


The Last Caravaggio review – a gripping and murderously dark finale

Baku, April 18, AZERTAC

At the height of his fame in Rome, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is known to have owned at least 12 books, according to Guardian.

We don’t picture Caravaggio as a reader. A streetfighter, a killer, yes – but not an intellectual. Yet his painting The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, which has come to the National Gallery from Naples, proves he could mine a book for its hidden diamonds.

The tale of Ursula, an early Christian princess from Britain who sailed off to marry and hopefully convert a pagan prince accompanied by no less than 11,000 virgins, is one of the religious fairy tales recounted in an incredibly strange medieval compendium called The Golden Legend. Caravaggio obviously studied this 13th-century source carefully because he sees something in it no one else had.

Previous artists depicted its pageantry and epic travels, culminating in gory mass martyrdom. Caravaggio instead homes in on an intense isolated moment. Ursula’s 11,000 companions were slain by “the Hunnish tribe” at Cologne (to quote William Granger Ryan’s translation), but Ursula was spared. The chief of the Huns “was dazzled by her wondrous beauty”. He tried to cheer her up – hey, sorry about the mass martyrdom – and asked her to marry him. “But she scorned his offer, and he, seeing that she despised him, transfixed her with an arrow.”

This is what Caravaggio paints. The Hunnish king is possessed by rage, his face fiery red, as furious as the lion on his bronze breastplate. He’s just shot the arrow at point blank rage. Ursula looks down, her face calm, at the shaft buried in her chest. There are no armies, no mounds of corpses as in earlier depictions. Instead, Caravaggio does what his contemporary Shakespeare did with Holinshed and Cinthio to create Macbeth and Othello: he extracts the human juice from the clattering narrative.

This is a great drama played out in the depths of night – and the National Gallery stages it that way. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula hangs in a stark space with a handful of supporting documents and one other painting. It’s hypnotic. London theatre may be pricey but here’s a dumbfounding drama of rage, violence, death and maybe guilt, regret and acceptance – and you can see it for free. It also has a cameo from Caravaggio himself, in the last self-portrait he ever painted, standing behind Ursula.

His eyebrows and hair are jet black. So are his eyes. It’s tempting to call them lightless, but there are two tiny specks of white in each. They reflect the light source laying bare these desperate figures in the night. That “cinematic” lighting has made Caravaggio a superstar in the screen age. But he startled early 1600s Rome, too, by observing actual light. Set in humble rooms or side streets, the scenes in paintings like The Calling of Saint Matthew are illuminated by a single source from the side that exposes bold details out of surrounding darkness.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula has that same focused light, but the beam is extremely narrow, as if filtered through a slit. It picks out bits of the scarred, weathered face of the Hunnish chief leaving his other features in the unlit void. Beside him, a witness has a face that’s just a nose and eye. Caravaggio’s own face is similarly mutilated. The top half is lit while his mouth, open in a howl of horror, is barely discernible.

Caravaggio always gives people filthy fingernails, but look at this murderer’s nails and you’ll see what look like infected talons, one whole hand turning into a demonic claw. Ursula is still. She has got her martyrdom: a holy blessed fate in the eyes of the church. But what has her killer got? Damnation. Caravaggio is surely looking at him and thinking: Is that me?

I’ve seen blockbusters that bored me stiff. This exhibition, dedicated to just one masterpiece, held me transfixed, just like Ursula.

At National Gallery, London, from 18 April to 21 July.

Share news on social media

Follow us on social network

President Ilham Aliyev: Iran-Azerbaijan unity and friendship is unshakable

President of Azerbaijan: I do hope that Armenia contributes to regional cooperation, not damage it, by conducting the right policy

President: The interference of non-regional countries in our affairs is unacceptable

President Ilham Aliyev: We welcome Iran's support regarding peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia

President: Creation of “green energy” sources in Karabakh, East Zangezur, and Nakhchivan will benefit the entire region

President of Azerbaijan: We have major plans in the field of energy

President Ilham Aliyev: Iranian-Azerbaijani friendship and brotherhood are an important factor for the stability of the region

Interstate relations between Iran and Azerbaijan reached the highest level

President Ilham Aliyev: The opening of the "Giz Galasi" hydroelectric complex and the commissioning of the “Khudafarin” hydroelectric complex are historic events

Ceremony to commission "Khudafarin" hydroelectric complex and inaugurate "Giz Galasi" hydroelectric complex was held with participation of Azerbaijani and Iranian Presidents

Meeting between President Ilham Aliyev and President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi was held at state border between Azerbaijan and Iran

Speaker of Latvian Parliament arrives in Fuzuli

Azerbaijani hammer thrower wins gold medal in Poland

New rule banning heading in youth football games

Speaker of Latvian parliament embarks on official visit to Azerbaijan

Azerbaijani boxers secure 27 medals at “Heydar Aliyev Cup 2024” international tournament

13 killed as bus falls into ravine in E. Pakistan

Booklet highlighting Karabakh University to be issued

Sir Paul McCartney first UK billionaire musician

® Azercell presents its first ESG report at “GSMA M360 2024” conference

ICYF-ERC appeals to 10th Kazan Forum’s participants on COP29

Azerbaijan represented at 79th General Assembly and Congress of International Military Sports Council

First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva shared Instagram post on Zangilan trip VIDEO

Death toll rises to 7 in storm-battered Houston

Water disputes causing conflicts around the world, Turkish President Erdogan warns

Azerbaijani delegation continues visit to Kingdom of Morocco

Foundation stone was laid for internal road and communication network of Zangilan city VIDEO

President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva attended inauguration of Zangilan Mosque VIDEO

President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated “Zangilan” and “Shayifli” hydroelectric power plants VIDEO

Azerbaijan to host Ski Mountaineering World Cup for the first time

Azerbaijan`s female para athlete crowned three-time World champion

President Ilham Aliyev laid foundation stone for Minjivan settlement in Zangilan district VIDEO

Speaker of Azerbaijan’s Milli Majlis highlights challenges in ensuring gender quality at Geneva conference

President Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva participated in opening of Aghali hotel in Zangilan district VIDEO

At least 50 killed in heavy rains, floods in Afghanistan’s Ghor province

Foundation stone was laid for Mashanli village in Jabrayil district VIDEO

President Ilham Aliyev laid foundation stone for Sarijalli village in Jabrayil district VIDEO

Foundation stone was laid for Karkhulu village in Jabrayil VIDEO

Azerbaijani boxer triumphs at Hungarian tournament

President Ilham Aliyev laid foundation stone for Boyuk Marjanli village in Jabrayil district VIDEO

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry: Engineering support measures are underway in liberated territories VIDEO

Jewelry collection inspired by national motifs presented in US

Hong Kong digital yuan pilot lacks P2P capabilities

Azerbaijan's Prosecutor General strengthens ties at ECO Meeting in Tajikistan

WADA criticises U.S. for undermining anti-doping efforts

California continues to lead in U.S. unemployment rate

Juventus dismiss manager Massimiliano Allegri after Coppa Italia final

Japan passes a revised law allowing joint child custody for divorced parents for the first time

Turkish-Greek collaboration of Romeo and Juliet premiers in Athens

Azerbaijani oil price surges in global markets

Oil prices rise in global markets

Vatican tightens procedures on supposed ‘supernatural events’

Azerbaijan, Cuba discuss COP29-related issues

James Webb telescope discovers 2 merging black holes

Homes cut off after river bursts banks in northern Italy

Up to 2,000 gallons oil may spill into Gulf of Mexico as barge hits bridge in U.S. Texas

Timberwolves force Game 7 by blowing out Nuggets 115-70 behind 27 points from Anthony Edwards

Baku hosts “Enhancing Ambition, Enabling Action: COP29 Sustainable Business Forum”

Azerbaijan name 14 judokas to fight for glory at Malaga Junior European Cup 2024

President of Belarus Aleksandr Lukashenko concludes his state visit to Azerbaijan

"Anatolian Phoenix - 2024" exercise wraps up VIDEO

® Azercell participated in ADA's Employability Week

Rabat hosts presentation of documentary about Azerbaijan

‘Kuwait keen on expanding cooperation with Azerbaijan in healthcare and medical science’

South Africa ends rescue efforts at collapsed building and revises figures: 33 dead, no more missing

President Ilham Aliyev and President Aleksandr Lukashenko visited Shusha city VIDEO

UN-Azerbaijan relations discussed

Minister Mukhtar Babayev: Azerbaijan is developing law on decarbonization

Azerbaijan presents tourism opportunities at Guangzhou International Travel Fair

UN cuts back on hiring and air conditioning over tight budget

Azerbaijan, Denmark explore ways for football cooperation

AFFA President forges global ties at FIFA Congress

Azerbaijani young prodigy triumphs at violin competition in Italy

® Nar wishes good luck to Azerbaijani national volleyball teams in Golden European League!

Azerbaijan’s Combined Arms Army holds seasonal maintenance of all types of weapons and equipment

There were 1,005,737 attempts to connect to the network with blocked IMEI codes in Azerbaijan

New Dutch government will aim to 'opt out' of EU asylum rules

Glamour and grit are both on show in a London exhibition of photos from Elton John's collection

Two Azerbaijani boxers qualify for final of Russian tournament, while three fighters bag bronzes

N. Korea fires short-range ballistic missiles toward East Sea: South Korean JCS

12 killed in lightning strikes in India's West Bengal

Joel Matip and Thiago Alcantara to leave Liverpool when contracts expire at end of season

Foreign Ministry: French side must apologize for recent remark about Azerbaijan

® The Holcim national master competition 'I AM A MASTER!' invites the country's top professionals

Azerbaijan Army’s Chief of General Staff watches tactical exercise of Artillery units

Tunisia prevents 21,500 undocumented immigrants from crossing Mediterranean in January-April

Brazil named as hosts of FIFA Women’s World Cup 2027

150 dead, 112 missing as heavy rains, floods wreak havoc in southern Brazil

President Ilham Aliyev and President Aleksandr Lukashenko visited Jidir Duzu plain VIDEO

Presidents of Azerbaijan and Belarus visited Bulbul House-Museum in Shusha

Azerbaijan represented at annual summit of Pacific Asia Travel Association

Release of the Press Service of the President

Presidents of Azerbaijan and Belarus viewed "Heydar Aliyev and Garabagh" exhibition at the Creativity Center in Shusha

Azerbaijani and Belarus Presidents informed about master plan of Shusha

Presidents of Azerbaijan and Belarus viewed bullet-riddled monuments of Natavan, Bulbul and Uzeyir Hajibayli in Shusha

Azerbaijani PM meets with Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister

President Ilham Aliyev and President Aleksandr Lukashenko viewed bus jointly manufactured by Azerbaijan and Belarus, as well as tractors presented by the Belarusian President

President Ilham Aliyev and President Aleksandr Lukashenko visited Shusha city VIDEO

Azerbaijani and Armenian parliament speakers agree to sustain dialogue

Large Buddha statue unearthed in northern Laos