Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Behind Kansas City's Caravaggio

A lot of coasters are unaware of the cultural treasures which exist in flyover country. A coaster myself, I was quite surprised when I moved here three years ago to find Caravaggio’s “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” hanging in Kansas City’s free and excellent Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Our Bishop Emeritus Raymond Boland is quite a scholar of history and recently made an address to the Knights and Dames of Malta on the subject of Caravaggio. “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” has surprising significance for the Order of Malta. The Baptist is their patron, Caravaggio was for a short time a member of the Order, and as Bishop Boland explains, the order used to own the painting. I’ve uploaded his full talk and footnotes as a GoogleDoc. Below are excerpts pertaining to the provenance of Kansas City’s Caravaggio:

One of his masterworks currently in Rome is Caravaggio’s “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” now one of the prized pieces of our own Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I have brought along a poster of the painting for you to look at but, of course, no print or poster does justice to the original. And because of who you are, Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta, I want to give you one more good reason why you should be fully acquainted with this significant work of art which depicts the patron of the Order, St. John the Baptist.

Let me explain. I am going to tell you the story, the word most commonly used is “the provenance,” of this painting which, I believe, most of you will find surprising. Accordingly, much as I would like to, I do not have the time to regale you with descriptions of his colorful life and his magnificent body of work all accomplished during his short life of 39 years. If you are interested in knowing more about this artist and his work, then I must refer you to the many books, including biographies, which have been written about him in recent times and, in addition, the anniversary of his death this year has occasioned a whole plethora of fascinating articles.…

Let me return to our “John the Baptist.” After the Reformation and rallied by the Council of Trent, a deeply-wounded Catholic Church struggled to regain its stature in Europe. There were many changes and one of them was in the field of artistic expression and this trend was quite noticeable in the realm of religious art. The conventions of Mannerism were out and Caravaggo, more so than many others of his time, developed a naturalistic style which placed religious events in the contemporary world along with a hitherto unknown interplay of light and shadows. Religious paintings would never be the same again and Caravaggio, after being ignored for decades, is now credited with being one of the most creative and successful proponents of this revolutionary change.

In 1604 Ottavio Costa, the richest banker in Rome, commissioned Caravaggio to do a “John the Baptist” as an altarpiece for the tiny parish church in his home town of Coscente in northern Italy not far from the large port city of Genoa. The family was in the process of building a new and larger parish church and the older building was being relegated to the status of an oratory or chapel. The subject was chosen because the tiny chapel was the home of and was supported by a lay confraternity dedicated to St. John the Baptist. One of their charities was the provision of Christian funerals for the deceased poor whose families could not afford them, an apostolate which gave practical meaning to one of the corporal works of mercy. Some have maintained that the somber appearance of the painting was appropriate for funeral rites which, especially at that time when cholera was so prevalent, were far more somber in nature than may be the case today in our personal experience.

When Costa saw the painting, he decided to keep it himself.† To fulfill his promise, however, he commissioned some unknown artist to make a copy and the latter went to Coscente. The original by Caravaggio was now family property and when Costa died in 1639 his will stipulated that the painting should remain in the family in perpetuity. This provision lasted for a number of generations until it came into the possession of a descendant who happened to be a member of the Order of Malta. At that time membership demanded that, upon death, all possessions became the property of the Order. Some family members sued and the court case dragged on for many years until finally in 1705, the Church’s highest court, the Rota, ruled in favor of the Knights. The painting was shipped to the headquarters of the Order, then on the island of Malta.

Strangely enough, this was almost 100 years after Caravaggio himself spent some time in Malta. I would like to say that he was on vacation but that was not the case! Shortly after finishing his “John the Baptist,” true to form and ever the rabble-rouser, Caravaggio got involved in a street brawl in which a participant was killed. Fingers were pointed at Caravaggio and, whether guilty or not, he fled to Naples, a jurisdiction beyond the laws of the Papal States. He spent the last four years of his life “on the run” but not unemployed. After Naples he arrived in Malta in July, 1607 where he did two portraits of the Order’s Grand Master, Alof de Wignacourt, and, in recompense, he was received into the Order in 1608. He also completed his largest and only signed painting, the “Beheading of John the Baptist,” still to be admired today in the Co-Cathedral of St. John in Valetta, the island’s capital. Caravaggio couldn’t keep out of trouble; another street brawl, jail time, an escape from custody, an alleged physical attack on a fellow knight all resulted in his expulsion from the Order and he upped and fled to Sicily, staying on the move from Syracuse to Messina and then Palermo. You may recall that some years ago it was reported in the press that his famous altarpiece entitled, “The Adoration of the Shepherds with St. Lawrence and St. Francis” was stolen from the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been recovered. After Sicily he returned to Naples, reportedly received a pardon from the Pope for his role in the alleged murder in Rome but he died in mysterious circumstances on his way back to the Eternal City. He died not knowing that his work, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness” would one day end up in Malta 95 years after his untimely death.

In the 1740s a young English Lord with a Scottish title, Baron Aston of Forfar, was on the Grand Tour and somehow he acquired the painting from the Order of Malta. He shipped it back to England where it remained in obscurity for about 200 years probably on the Constable estate in Yorkshire to which the Aston descendants had moved.‡ In 1951 an Art Dealer in London purchased the painting. It was placed on the international market and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in Washington had the opportunity to acquire it. Director Walker of the National Gallery later confessed, “I made a mistake which still haunts me.”

These missed opportunities constituted a stroke of fortune for Kansas City and specifically the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

In the spring of 1952 one of the Museum’s trustees was vacationing in London. Milton McGreevy, his wife Barbara and his daughter Jeanne visited the art dealers’ showroom and there was the “St. John in the Wilderness.” Mr. McGreevy immediately put a reserve on it and that’s how it came to Kansas City and that’s why Kansas City is one of the few cities in the United States which can boast that is provides the home for a Caravaggio. Earlier this year I started preparing this talk with the conviction that the local Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta should be aware that Caravaggio was very briefly a member of the Order and that his “St. John in the Wilderness” was once in the possession of the Order at a time when it owned and governed what is now the independent island nation of Malta.

Image Credit: ArtRenewal.Org