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Caravaggio: The perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales

I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality

Death sharpens the art of Caravaggio. An executioner reaches for his knife to cut the final tendons holding a head together to its body. A female saint cherishes a dark-bladed rapier. St Peter watches in helpless horror as his own crucified body is turned upside down. I can think of no other painter who imagined death so acutely from the inside, as a physical reality, something happening to a real person - which makes the claim to have discovered his corpse and the cause of his death all the more compulsive news. Caravaggio dealt in death, metaphorically and very literally. A life of violence led inexorably to his killing a man in a swordfight in the heart of Rome and fleeing south. But on his Mediterranean odyssey as a fugitive from justice he found more violence, more death. He joined the Knights of Saint John, a military order sworn to fight Islam, whose fortress on Malta had recently withstood a siege of macabre cruelty (heads fired from cannons, that sort of thing). On Malta he painted his greatest and most deathly work, a depiction of the murder of Saint John the Baptist in prison that anticipates every modern scene of torture and disappearance.

Caravaggio's own death became his theme: he gave his own features to the decapitated Goliath in one of his very last pictures. His palette became darker, his paintings emptier and more sepulchral - The Burial of St Lucy that he painted in Syracuse is set inside a crypt that arches up in a brown void of abandonment. By the time he died on the Tuscan shore, wandering madly, it's said, through malarial coastal wastes, his art makes you feel he was all used up, a burnt out case from some fiction concocted by an impossible collaboration between Grahame Greene and Christopher Marlowe. The idea of his body being identified is gripping, and if true, curiously moving. Here was a man alone, who fell out of his society - an outsider centuries before Romanticism existed to make sense of his case. The outsider found? The rebel redeemed, to be reburied in some dignified Roman church? It sounds like the perfect ending to one of art's blackest tales. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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