Great Christian Art by Really Lousy Christians

If you want to paint a saint, it’s best to hire a sinner.

Artist: Caravaggio
Sins: murder; punching a monk in the gut

Religious art in the late 16th century had become pretty standard stuff, full of beautiful Madonnas, chubby cherubs, and handsome saints. But Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio changed all that by painting what he knew best —debauchery.

After moving to Rome in the late 1580s, Caravaggio began rendering baroque Biblical scenes with remarkable realism. In the case of “The Calling of St. Matthew,” for example (pictured), he portrayed the apostle in a dirty Roman tavern surrounded by downtrodden patrons. According to police records, Caravaggio spent plenty of time in these Roman taverns himself, drinking, brawling, and once throwing a plate of hot artichokes into a waiter’s face.

Church officials put up with Caravaggio’s wild behavior in exchange for his amazing work—until he crossed the line to murder. In 1606, the hot-tempered artist killed a Roman thug named Ranuccio Tomassoni in a fight following their tennis match. Recent research suggests the tennis game was actually a kind of duel over a woman, and that Tomassoni bled to death after Caravaggio tried to castrate his enemy on the court. The artist would have gotten into serious trouble, but wealthy patrons smuggled him out of town.

Caravaggio wound up in Naples, where he thrived as an artist for several years. Then he shocked everyone by leaving to join the Knights of Malta, an order of elite warrior monks famed for their religious devotion. Less than four months after taking his vows, however, Caravaggio’s temper got the better of him again, and he wounded a fellow monk in a quarrel. Once more, his friends smuggled him back to Naples.

Oddly, the Church never gave up on Caravaggio, and in 1610, friends in Rome sent word that a pardon was in the works. Caravaggio headed north, but he caught a fever and died on July 18, at age 38. He left behind a bizarre artistic legacy: No fewer than 12 of his paintings show figures being beheaded—a reflection, perhaps, of his own violent life.

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Sins: debauchery; giving the Virgin Mary an “awkward phase”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti had two contradictory goals in life. One was to indulge his hedonistic impulses to such an extent that his fellow Victorians would faint. The other was to revitalize Christian art. Rossetti achieved the first goal by drinking heavily, taking several lovers, throwing the best parties in town, and filling his ramshackle house with exotic pets such as kangaroos, armadillos, and wombats.

The second goal proved trickier for a man who’d never made it to church. In paintings such as 1850’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini” (“The Annunciation,” pictured), Rossetti set out to realistically depict a young woman’s encounter with the divine. He painted the Virgin Mary as a gawky teenager, recoiling in terror from an angel. The portrait horrified devout Christians, and the work was denounced as blasphemous in sermons and editorials.

The criticism so hurt Rossetti that he never exhibited publicly again. But his painting of the gangly Mary ultimately freed him. Without the pressure of public life, Rossetti was able to do and paint what he wanted. He picked up an addiction to sleeping pills, had an affair with his best friend’s wife, and created some of the most fascinating religious works in history, including “The Passover of the Holy Family,” “The Seed of David,” and “Mary Magdalene.”

Artist: Salvador Dali­
Sins: orgies; possibly hoodwinking the Pope

Although born to devout Catholic parents, surrealist master Salvador Dali­ was an atheist who indulged his every outlandish whim. This included teaming up with his salacious wife, Gala, to throw anything-goes orgies, dubbed “erotic Masses.” Although his paintings of melting clocks, such as 1931’s “The Persistence of Memory," made Dali famous, so did his ridiculous publicity stunts. He once showed up for a lecture in a diving helmet and insisted upon giving his talk while wearing it. Another time, he created a spectacle by driving around in a white limousine filled with cauliflower.

After Hitler invaded Europe, Dali­ and Gala fled to the United States. To everyone’s surprise, Dali­ returned to his Catholic roots and began creating Christian art. He painted a Madonna and Child called “The Madonna of Port Lligat” (pictured), using Gala as his model for the Virgin Mary. He also went on to complete two versions of Jesus’ crucifixion and the Sacrament of the Last Supper. The Church readily embraced his new paintings, and in 1949, Dali­ enjoyed a private audience with the Pope.

Not surprisingly, both critics and friends found the idea of Dali expressing a religious side laughable. Many suspected that he was attempting to win the favor of the staunchly Catholic General Francisco Franco in Spain. Artists such as Picasso had denounced the fascist dictator, but Dali­ defended him—which allowed Salvador to return to Spain, while Picasso couldn’t. Others suspected that money was his major motivation. Indeed, Dali claimed that postcards of his 1955 painting “The Sacrament of the Last Supper” sold more than postcards of all the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael combined. Or maybe Dali­ really did have a spiritual side. Wouldn’t that be surreal?

Artist: Rembrandt
Sins: lust; having his lover arrested

Like Caravaggio, Rembrandt liked his religious art to be realistic. His 1633 etching “The Good Samaritan” (pictured), for instance, even includes a dog defecating in the foreground. Surprisingly, his patrons liked his down-to-earth touches, and Rembrandt’s art became hugely popular with members of Amsterdam’s Dutch Reformed Church, a branch of Calvinism. They didn’t commission his work, believing that art might distract worshipers from sermons, but many rich Calvinists enjoyed showing off Rembrandt originals in their homes.

What the pious Dutch didn’t like were Rembrandt’s relationships with women. In 1635, he painted his wife, Saskia, as a prostitute in a tavern, literally sitting in the lap of the prodigal son. His art was strange, but his personal life was stranger. Things became especially fraught after Saskia died in 1642, leaving behind a newborn son. A woman named Geertje Dircx took over as Rembrandt’s nurse, housekeeper, and lover. But when the artist started up with yet another servant, Geertje took him to court for breach of promise. Bad idea. The outraged painter used his influence to have her imprisoned for theft. Meanwhile, church officials summoned his other mistress before a local council and charged her with living in sin.

All of this hurt Rembrandt’s reputation as a religious painter tremendously. Because the pious Calvinists wanted nothing to do with him, Rembrandt lost his patrons and died in poverty in 1669. One of his last paintings was “Return of the Prodigal Son.” This time, the painting depicts the end of the story, when the son—his clothing just rags and his shoes just scraps of leather—returns to his father to seek forgiveness.

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Sin: forbidden love

In the 1470s, the Roman Catholic Church was taking notice of the talents of young Leonardo da Vinci, but they hesitated to give him his big break. Rumor had it that the artist was gay, and at the time, Italian law punished homosexuality with exile, branding, or burning at the stake. In April 1476, after years of whispers, someone anonymously accused Leonardo of sodomy, and Florence police promptly arrested him.

Luckily for Leonardo, the case was dropped, ostensibly because someone higher up had pulled some strings. Not surprisingly, he left Florence soon after and took up a post with the Duke of Milan, who didn’t seem to care about the artist’s sexuality. Leonardo continued to paint religious art, including “The Last Supper” (pictured), and in general, the Milanese adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude towards him. Of course, the artist did raise some eyebrows when his “student”—a handsome young man known as Salai—moved in with him.

In 1513, with nearly 40 years of scandal-free work under his belt, da Vinci finally found himself in the good graces of the Church, and he was invited to work for the Vatican. It was a great honor, but Leonardo didn’t feel obligated to give the Pope what he asked for. Instead of painting Madonnas, Leonardo produced several odd depictions of John the Baptist that were modeled on his lover, Salai. The half-naked paintings featured seductive smiles and boyish faces (pictured), and they rattled his employer. In 1516, King Francis I of France invited Leonardo to become his court painter, and the Vatican was happy to see him go. When Leonardo died in 1519, he left the bulk of his property to Salai.


This article by Elizabeth Lunday is from the September-October 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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It's an embroidery depicting lilies (for purity) hanging at the foot of her bed. It's the same one Mary is sewing in Rossetti's Girlhood of the Virgin Mary.
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Miss C, are you saying that Leonardo da Vinci was a "lousy Christian" because he was gay? So when did you join the Westboro Baptist Church? ;)

And isn't it the nature of Christianity to forgive Salvador Dali's years of wild living when he rediscovered his faith? Certainly, there have been repentant sinners with greaters misdeeds than his.
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