Encountering Caravaggio in Sicily

The Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa is ringed with beautiful buildings, but the Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia isn’t one of them. Both inside and outside it is a dull piece of architecture, but the architecture is not the reason why it attracts visitors. Its claim on the attention is a painting by Caravaggio that hangs behind the altar which depicts the Burial of Santa Lucia.

The painter came to Sicily in 1608, having left Rome after murdering a high ranking cleric. Initially he went to Malta where he heard about a commission for a church in Siracusa: an altarpiece depicting Santa Lucia, the patron saint of Sicily, who was martyred in the early 4th century during the Diocletian persecutions.

Caravaggio decided to depict the saint’s burial, rather than a glorification of her death and dashed it off in 1-2 months before leaving Sicily in a hurry. Caravaggio painted straight onto the canvas without drawing it out first. It is a very strange painting.Image result for caravaggio burial of st lucia

It’s not clear from the cropped image above but the burial scene only occupies the bottom one third of the canvas. The top two thirds is empty because it just shows the blank wall of the crypt in which Santa Lucia is being buried.

You have to look hard to make out the subject of the painting. St Lucia is a frail, grey body lying on the floor of the crypt, almost as if she is already turning into the colour of stone. Behind her stands a sorrowful young man with a crimson cloth round his neck which points down at the saint’s lifeless body. To the right of the canvas a bishop, distinguished by his white mitre and crozier, raises his hand in blessing. There’s a small cast of mourners, mainly ordinary people and a soldier in a shiny cuirass. The faces of the bishop and soldier are not clearly depicted, almost as if they were painted in great haste, whereas the group of three characters in the centre of the centre of the picture is well lit and clearly painted.

However what frames a the picture are the two muscular gravediggers who, in a dislocation of perspective, almost appear outside of the scene and not related to it. They dominate the painting, particularly the gravedigger on the right whose white backside reflecting the light is the brightest part of the painting. This is echoed by the bright reflection on the shoulder of the gravedigger in the lefthand side. Could the gravedigger on the right represent Caravaggio’s attitude and be mooning at the Church?

Another oddity is the restricted colour palette that Caravaggio uses generally (and not just in this painting): shades of brown, with the exceptions being crimson and white. Everything is very muted and almost understated.

Apparently the Church didn’t like the painting and wanted him to fill in the empty space in the top two thirds, for example with angels. Caravaggio is alleged to have told them that he couldn’t do this as he had never seen an angel (though he did include them in some of his other paintings). I wonder (without any evidence) whether he was an atheist who just used the church to make a living. Or am I just trying to interpret him from the perspective of our times? What a strange and troubled character Caravaggio was.

The painting was sent to Rome for restoration because after several centuries the subject could hardly be made out any more. During the restoration, X-rays showed that Caravaggio painted Santa Lucia with a severed head (as this was how she was martyred), but in the final painting her head is back on her body.

You can’t get very close to the painting and have to view it from the altar rail. Every few minutes, from the back of church, an official barks out ‘No photos!’ through a megaphone to anyone trying to take a shot with a phone or camera. So not the best of conditions in which to look the painting and try to understand it.




Va pensiero…

Pushing my way back out of the cave that’s cool and dark after the fierceness of the afternoon Sicilian sun, I walk through a group of people spread across the width of the cave. As I pass them they start singing a tune that seems vaguely familiar at first, until it suddenly reveals itself as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Looking back I see a conductor in their midst. Some are singing the words, others (like me, drawn to them) humming along. It is totally unexpected, very moving and at the same time highly appropriate.

For I am in the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysus) in the Latomie at the Archaeological Park in Siracusa. From the outside it resembles the top of 2/3 of an ear and it has a curious
S-shaped structure that goes back about 60m, ending in a wall of sheer rock. Limestone was quarried here for buildings in Siracusa or alternatively it was used as a place for storing water. Whatever its original purpose it has a grim history.

In 415 BC during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sent an expedition against Sicily which was in league with the Spartans. It turned into a major defeat in 413 BC for the Athenians with the loss of 200 Greek ships and the capture of over 7,000 of their soldiers. The Orecchio di Dionisio is where these captured Athenians were kept in appalling conditions, without food or water. Most of them died after a few weeks and only an estimated 20 survived to make their way back to Athens to report to an incredulous population what had happened.

One can only imagine the torment of the Athenian prisoners in this prison and their longing for Greece. In Nabucco, the Hebrew Slaves lament for their lost homeland. So this impromptu performance by a random choir on a summer’s afternoon was a very fitting memorial to these events of so long ago.   

Obliquely it also has a link to Euripides’ play ‘Eleni’ (first performed in 411BC) which I have blogged about here and also to Seferis’s poem of the same name. The defeat of the Athenian forces was a major blow to the morale of the city state and may have been one of the contemporary events that prompted the questioning of the purpose of war in Euripides’ play.

The Orecchio di Dionisio was given its name by Caravaggio after he was shown it in 1608 when visiting the island. The Dionisio in question was tyrant of Syracuse a few years after the defeat of the Athenian forces who allegedly imprisoned opponents here and was able to eavesdrop on their plans thanks to the space’s perfect acoustics. The best place to hear the focused sounds in the cave is from a gallery above the entrance which unfortunately is not accessible to visitors.

It’s in Siracusa that I encounter Caravaggio the painter for the first time, specifically his Burial of St Lucia. But that will have to wait for another post.