The Skulls in Caravaggio’s Paintings

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, globally known as Caravaggio, was an Italian-born painter who lived most of his artistic life in Rome between 1593 and 1610. His paintings are characterized by their combination of a realistic presentation of humanity, both physically and emotionally, with a dramatic use of lighting.

Critics have noted that Caravaggio’s art influenced the development of Baroque painting, an art style that relied heavily on contrast, movement, deep colors, and flamboyant details to achieve a sense of awe.

Another noticeable feature in Caravaggio’s works is his incorporation of macabre imagery of violent struggles, torture, and death. They paralleled the kind of life he lived, described as “enigmatic, fascinating, rebellious and dangerous,” and the controversial end he suffered.

Memento Mori

The repeated usage of skulls in some of Caravaggio famous paintings is particularly of interest. This depiction of death is referred to as “Memento Mori,” an art style that uses skulls as a prominent motif. It’s a Latin phrase meaning “remember that you must die.” As the name implies, Memento Mori provokes its audience to consider the transience of life by focusing on the inevitability of death.

Memento Mori’s origin can be traced back to the philosophers of classical antiquity who lived in medieval times. It is also an essential aspect of ascetic disciplines, particularly Christianity, as it directs the individual’s gaze away from earthly pursuits toward the prospects of an afterlife.

It soon found its way into architecture. Finally, artists began to explore its concepts in several unique styles throughout art history, developing its rich visual symbolism and similar subgenres like Vanitas and Danse Macabre.

Caravaggio was one of the numerous artists who experimented with the Memento Mori style. As a result, he created multiple paintings that are famous today for the skulls they feature.

Saint Jerome Writing 1605-06

Also called Saint Jerome in His Study is an oil painting Caravaggio created around 1605-06. According to art historical biographer Gian Pietro Bellori, Caravaggio produced this piece on the request of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, upon his ordination as cardinal in 1605.

It is a painting of Saint Jerome, a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, and a popular subject for many artworks, even for Caravaggio himself, who produced other paintings of the Saint, the second painting of him writing and another one of him in meditation.

Here, Jerome is depicted reading intently; a red cloak envelopes his frail, white-haired figure as he stretches out an arm on the table, holding a quill in it. Scholars have suggested that perhaps Jerome is depicted in the process of translating the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible.

Something unusual about the painting catches the eye; close to Jerome’s writing hand is an unmistakable skull. The skull beside Saint Jerome symbolizes mortality, a cue to ponder one’s life and the consequences it bodes for the afterlife. Today, the painting is located in Rome’s Galleria Borghese.

Saint Jerome Writing 1608

St. Jerome (San Gerolamo) – Caravaggio

This second oil painting is similar to the first depiction of Saint Jerome in writing, which features the same elements with subtle differences.

As with the first, the painting depicts Saint Jerome intently reading something with his outstretched arm holding a quill. A skull sits on the desk in front of him, close to the handwriting with the quill. Caravaggio used lighting to create contrast by drawing attention to the saint and the skull while leaving the background dark. The significance of the skull in the painting is the same as in the earlier rendition.

The painting was stolen (1984) from the St. John’s Co-Cathedral. It was recovered two years later when a ransom had been asked, damaged, and needed restoration before it could be put on display again. The painting is still housed in the Co-Cathedral’s oratory, Valletta, Malta.

Saint Jerome in Meditation

This is yet another of Caravaggio’s works that feature Saint Jerome as its main subject. It is an oil painting that dates back to 1605.

The painting portrays a frail and wrinkled St. Jerome with one hand resting on a table in front of

him while the other hand is positioned under his chin, as if in deep thought. A flowing red robe is draped around his wrinkled body, and a skull is resting on the table.

This piece evokes strong emotions in its audience as Caravaggio has deliberately used a dark background to bring Jerome and the skull into full view. Even more thought-provoking is the fact that the saint seems to be looking at the human skull, making it the object of his deep contemplation. This particular painting echoes the inevitability of death even louder than the rest.

Today, it is displayed at the Museum of Montserrat, next to the Monastery of Santa Maria, Spain.

Saint Francis in Prayer

Saint Francis in Meditation – Caravaggio

Created by Caravaggio between 1602-04, it is an oil painting of Saint Francis of Assisi, known for a life of humility.

The saint is portrayed on his knees in deep reflection; he is dressed in an old, torn robe. He carries a skull in his hands that he gazes upon with a concerned look. At his side is a large crucifix resting on a rock.

Like the other works mentioned in this article, the skull reminds of mam’s mortality, an emblem of looming death. However, the cross beside him is perhaps a symbol of salvation from the anxiety of death, as Caravaggio was a religious man who expressed his beliefs in his art. Today, the painting is displayed at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome.

The Bottom Line

As is typical of most artists, Caravaggio’s art was often an extension of his firm beliefs. For example, the works mentioned above reflect Caravaggio’s take on death and the afterlife believed to succeed it; the skulls he used were his method of compelling his audience to ponder this take.

Related posts