Martin Gayford

A certain something

A certain something

Could Caravaggio draw? That might seem a startling, even a ridiculous, question, but it expresses a doubt with which I was left by the admittedly magnificent exhibition that is about to close at the National Gallery. It is a concern that has led on to another, even more perplexing. That is, what is good drawing anyway?

Of course, Caravaggio is now just about everybody’s favourite old master. One of his pictures was casually parodied on last week’s Spectator cover, in the confident expectation that most readers would get the point. For the past few months the crush in front of his paintings in the basement galleries of the Sainsbury Wing has approached the levels of crowding on commuter trains. I loved it, and praised it, too.

But, even before the show opened in London, a faint worry was nagging at the back of my mind. It began years ago when his ‘Taking of Christ’ was discovered in Dublin. I went to see it, and was most impressed. But I also noticed that the arms of Judas — one of the most important figures — were much too short.

Once I’d noticed that, all sorts of other discrepancies turned up: figures whose limbs were of strangely ill-assorted lengths, others who stood oddly close to each other — even apparently inside other figures — or whose exact position was impossible to determine. In some of the paintings in the National Gallery show, the people in the pictures were packed together even more alarmingly than the people who’d come to look at the pictures.

A painting that illustrates the point is ‘Salome Receives the Head of St John the Baptist’, in which Salome and the older woman behind her seem to be occupying the same bit of space, so that their two heads apparently grow from one neck.

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