The Last Caravaggio

London, National Gallery
18 April – 21 July 2024

The National Gallery of London has achieved a profound exploration of psychological drama by exhibiting a single work by Caravaggio, his Martyrdom of Saint Ursula of 1610. When standing in front of this masterpiece — the last painting completed by Caravaggio — all your senses are drawn towards it. Dramatically lit, tightly cropped and crowded, this composition summarises Caravaggio’s late style and offers the viewer a glimpse into the artist’s state of mind at the end of his life. Caravaggio condensed the iconography of Saint Ursula’s martyrdom to its main actors, creating an unusually tormented rendition of the subject that saturates the canvas with the feelings of guilt and resignation. The artist himself makes an appearance in a self-portrait in the upper right, half his ashen face in darkness as he cries out, participating in the intensity and complexity of the scene unfolding.

A few years earlier, in c. 1605, Caravaggio painted The Klesch Collection’s Portrait of a Man in a Ruff. His signature use of chiaroscuro and clarity of narrative vision, so wonderfully exemplified in The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, are already evident in this comparatively subdued portrait. Caravaggio captures the psychological essence of his subject by stripping back visual noise. In this intense and deeply personal portrait, the skilful simplicity of a single focused light source and the proximity of his subject to the picture plane allowed Caravaggio to focus on capturing the inner world of his sitter. Completed around the time the artist had to flee Rome, the serenity of the Klesch Caravaggio stands in contrast to the dramatic storytelling of The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, a portent of the drama that would follow Caravaggio through the rest of his life.

‘The Last Caravaggio’ is on view at the National Gallery until 21 July 2024.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, 1610, oil on canvas, 143 x 180 cm.
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli © Archivio Patrimonio Artistico Intesa Sanpaolo / foto Luciano Pedicini, Naples

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Portrait of a Gentleman with a Ruff, c. 1605.