Alas, the Milwaukee Art Museum does not own a Caravaggio painting.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610) was a revolutionary painter who combined theatrical compositions and lighting with realistic depictions of humans to make some of the most dramatic and memorable paintings from the early Baroque period.
Unfortunately, he died young and his paintings are hard to come by. Some of my favorites are The Calling of Saint Matthew in Rome and Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum.
But no need to despair! Many artists who traveled to Italy in the 17th century—and lots who didn’t—were inspired to use the style of the great artist Caravaggio. The Milwaukee Art Museum has great paintings by some of these northern European artists, which hang in Gallery #5 with Northern Baroque paintings. Two of them—Christ before the High Priest by Mathias Stom and Mars, God of War by Gerrit von Honthorst—are by well-known artists of the phenomenon.
I’ve found myself recently admiring one in particular, by the least-known artist in the gallery: Gluttony by Jacques de l’Ange.
Jacques de l’Ange was a Flemish artist, active in Antwerp (which is in modern Belgium) between 1631 and 1642. He has only recently been specifically identified. Previously he was known as “Monogrammist JAD” because he signed his paintings with just his initials.
How does l’Ange emulate Caravaggio’s sytle? Caravaggio used one light source in his paintings to cast dramatic, almost theater-like shadows. In Gluttony, l’Ange uses a candle on the right side of the composition as his single light. Not only does this make the scene emerge from the darkness in the back, but it also gives depth to the painting by accentuating the modelling of the figures.
What I really like about Gluttony is that this powerful technique adds to the mood of the subject matter.
Gluttony, which is the excessive indulgence in food and drink, is one of the seven deadly sins. The seven deadly sins, which all Christians are to protect themselves against, are pride, envy, avarice, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. First established by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century, the seven deadly sins become an essential part of the Catholic Church’s catechism. In the 13th century, they are discussed by the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, and in the 14th century they are a key theme in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dante Alghieri’s Divine Comedy.
These sins are deadly because they can cause death, but also because they are dangerous to the fate of the soul—commit these sins, and the soul will pay after death.
Needless to say, this is serious stuff and perfect subject matter for an artist like Jacques l’Ange, who lived in Catholic Flanders. A picture is worth a thousand words, when you are warning people about the possible fate of their soul.
In the Museum’s painting, l’Ange shows himself distracted by drink. His clothes are so disheveled that his shoulder is bare. To make it clear that he is being overindulgent, he holds a cup in each hand. The bartender hovers over his shoulder, ready to refill one of them when it is empty. Clearly, the young man is not going to get much painting done tonight!
And just to add to the foreboding tone of the painting, the figure holding the candle that so dramatically illuminates the scene is a young horned devil, looking very pleased at the results of this young man’s gluttony. You can almost imagine his evil chuckle as the candle flickers, casting ominous shadows on the artist.
The seven deadly sins is a popular subject matter for artists. Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, 1450-1516) painted a work that shows the sins in a circle. (Here’s a blog post that explains more.)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, 1526/30-1569) did a set of drawings depicting the seven deadly sins, which were published as prints in the mid-16th century. Here is Bruegel’s version of gluttony (gula in Latin).
Milwaukee’s work was originally thought to be a depiction of one of the other seven deadly sins, sloth. After finding out that the Ashmoleam Museum at the University of Oxford has a full set of paintings by Jacquest l’Ange of the seven deadly sins—they are smaller, and done on copper—we discovered that that this Museum’s painting is actually representing gluttony. (Sloth shows a sleeping man.) Because the Ashmolean owns all seven from the series, it is a great opportunity to see l’Ange treatment of the other sins, as well as how he handles the single-light source technique.
And I like to think that Gluttony is popular in Milwaukee because of the single-light source painting technique, rather than the double-fisting artist.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.