A documentary producer’s memoir of the unexpected lessons he learned from a church caretaker about faith, the human condition, and the Italian painter Caravaggio.
In the early 2000s, Ward (Searching for Hassan: An American Family's Journey Home to Iran, 2002, etc.) was on a research trip to Naples when a tour of the Duomo of San Gennaro altered the course of his visit. While in the duomo, he came across a mysterious Caravaggio painting called The Seven Acts of Mercy. A church guardian began to explain the work to him. Each grouping of figures in the “eerie chiaroscuro” was an interpretation of the seven mercies as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. Rather than attempt to render the painting along more classical lines, Caravaggio broke with tradition and used “Neapolitans fresh off the streets as his models.” Some of the acts he depicted—such as a daughter offering her starving and imprisoned father her own breast to feed and comfort him—bordered on scandalous. The more Ward listened to the guardian and his stories over successive visits, the more he found himself intrigued by Caravaggio, whose mysterious life he imagines and deftly interweaves into the main narrative. Gradually, he began to understand that through the painting, Caravaggio was attempting to offer a purified version of Christianity, which the artist saw as classist and exclusionary. The artist’s “truth,” writes the author, “ignores earthly divisions of wealth, power, [and] birth.” Instead, Caravaggio focused on the shared humanity of the individuals and suggested a more egalitarian vision of Christian brotherhood. In an ironic twist, the guardian’s life became a study in the power of mercy when he was confronted with his wife’s adultery. Remembering Caravaggio, he transcended his pain to eventually accept both his wife’s frailties and his own. Ward’s work offers a refreshing look at a once-forgotten—but now much-celebrated—artistic genius. The author also reveals the subtle and profound ways in which art and life interact.
Fascinating reading about a significant artistic figure and his legacy.