Caravaggio's Final Masterpiece Returns to National Gallery After 20 Years

The National Gallery in London hosts a special exhibition featuring Caravaggio's final masterpiece, "The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula," exploring the artist's tumultuous life and the themes of violence and guilt in his works.

Rafia Tasleem
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Caravaggio's Final Masterpiece Returns to National Gallery After 20 Years

Caravaggio's Final Masterpiece Returns to National Gallery After 20 Years

The National Gallery in London is hosting a special exhibition featuring Caravaggio's last known painting, "The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula" (1610), on loan from the Gallerie d'Italia in Naples. The exhibition, titled "The Last Caravaggio," explores the tumultuous final years of the Italian master's life and the themes of violence and guilt present in his works.

Caravaggio's painting depicts the dramatic moment when Saint Ursula, an early Christian princess from Britain, is shot with an arrow by the Hunnish king. The artist's interpretation focuses on the intense, isolated scene, with Ursula remaining calm and accepting of her fate. Curators have highlighted Caravaggio's skilled use of light and shadow to create a cinematic effect, as well as the partially obscured faces that may reflect the artist's own recent trauma of being attacked and disfigured.

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

The painting's path to the National Gallery has been a long one. A letter from 1610 revealed that it was commissioned by the Genoese nobleman Marcantonio Doria, but delivery was delayed due to issues with the varnish. The work was previously attributed to other artists until art historians Vincenzo Pacelli and Ferdinando Bologna concluded in 1980 that it was indeed a Caravaggio, created shortly before his death at the age of 38.

Why this matters: The exhibition marks a significant moment for both the art world and the National Gallery, as it coincides with the institution's 200th anniversary. The display of Caravaggio's final masterpiece offers visitors a rare opportunity to immerse themselves in the artist's powerful and psychologically intense work, while also shedding light on his troubled life and enduring legacy.

Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, the curator of the exhibition, emphasized the unique opportunity for visitors to appreciate the details, drama, and emotional depth of Caravaggio's painting. The low lighting in the gallery highlights the chiaroscuro effects, and the inclusion of a self-portrait within the work reflects the artist's "anguished and anxious state of mind" as he prepared to return to Rome, where he had fled after committing murder in 1606.

"The Last Caravaggio" exhibition runs until July 21, 2024, and admission is free. The National Gallery's thoughtful curation of this "one-painting blockbuster" allows visitors to fully engage with Caravaggio's masterpiece and reflect on the relevance of its themes in the present day.

Key Takeaways

  • National Gallery hosts exhibition of Caravaggio's last painting, "The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula".
  • Painting depicts dramatic scene of Saint Ursula's execution, showcasing Caravaggio's use of light and shadow.
  • Painting's history includes delayed delivery and previous misattribution, until confirmed as a Caravaggio in 1980.
  • Exhibition marks National Gallery's 200th anniversary and offers rare chance to experience Caravaggio's work.
  • Exhibition runs until July 2024 and admission is free, allowing visitors to engage with the painting's themes.