Crucifixion of the Heart
I want to say I don’t know why I like Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew (1606-7) so much, but I do know. And while it’s connected to my Catholic upbringing, it’s so much more primal as I stand at the Cleveland Museum of Art and stare at it, like a gut punch that I’m okay with, even masochistically welcoming of. I love the painting because it scares me. Emotionally and viscerally.
Sure, there was the amalgam of Sunday mass, heady incense, dirge-y prayers, and my near rapturous fascination with stained glass windows that most likely instilled a healthy dose of Catholic voodoo into my spirituality. Being the youngest of nine trooping off to Sacred Heart each week (ding-ding Irish Catholics for the win) meant mysteries of all kinds mixed into this Caravaggio canvas.
And, Mio Dio, there’s the fantastical play of light and shadow (can you say Chiaroscuro?), the dramatic story depicted, and the fact that by all accounts Caravaggio was a bad-ass brawler, chased into exile and dying in murky circumstances. Quite the romantic composition.
The explanation accompanying the painting says St. Andrew was sentenced to death for his missionary activity and asked to be crucified like his hero Jesus Christ. Then he “…preached to an enormous crowd, and when his executioners tried to remove him, a mysterious force paralyzed him. Upon finishing a prayer, a dazzling light enveloped Andrew and he died.”
I don’t care what you’re watching on Netflix or Hulu right now, it can’t be packing that kind of narrative punch.
I mean, just look at it (of course it’s better if you go in person). Look at the guy gazing as he stands underneath Andrew (detail #1). He wants to know God, and hopes the crucified Saint might just clue him in and lift him up. And look at the soldier (detail #2) with the incredulous but somehow wary expression on his face. No monarch’s order ever affected him like that. And the guy standing in front of the soldier, he’s just plain blasted out of his mind, mouth agape.
For me, it adds up to encountering something so shockingly gorgeous and provocative that it causes the willies. Then the fear sets in. Partially because this thing was created about 400 years ago, is made of just paint and canvas, and is deeply, darkly religious. I consider myself spiritual, but I practice no religion. So how come an altar piece like this moves me so? The only thing I can conclude is that it frightens me because, although Caravaggio held the brush, God did the work. And I get to stand in front of it in this earthly life. Amen.