‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’ (1603-04) by Caravaggio
‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’ (1603-04) by Caravaggio © Nelson Gallery Foundation

The pre-Christmas arrival from the Prado of Juan Bautista Maino’s 10ft altarpieces “The Adoration of the Shepherds” and “The Adoration of the Kings” brings to London’s National Gallery its most majestic, affecting, surprising visitors of 2016.

With striking, tender realism, the Spanish painter contrasts the lavish Magi — balding Italian noble in gold silk, turbaned Asiatic prince, young African in feathered headdress — rising as a pyramid of exotic figures beneath a beaming gold star, with the shepherds depicted in an earthy palette. Under the steaming warm breath of a protective ox, these half-naked youths play the pipes and recline languorously with a lamb. Their celestial parallels, fleshy adolescent angels, tumble from the clouds, eager to join the human throng.

This display in room one is a free, fabulous foretaste of the Sainsbury Wing’s new show Beyond Caravaggio. For when Maino painted these rapturously involved panels for a Toledo church in 1612-14, he had just returned from Italy, bringing a decorous, restrained version, appropriate to Spain, of Caravaggesque naturalism and chiaroscuro. The sultry classicised shepherds and angels come straight from Caravaggio’s rippling boys; the storytelling, rooted in daily detail, depends too on his example.

But the linearity and verticality recall El Greco, who died in Toledo in 1614, and the serene spiritual charge — Maino was a Dominican friar — is the opposite of Caravaggio’s doubt and turbulence. In the “Kings”, Maino includes a self-portrait as a casual onlooker, reverently pointing at the divine infant. Caravaggio’s self-portraits in biblical scenes are desperate, shocking: the excited voyeur holding up a lantern among armoured soldiers — men as metallic automatons — in the oppressive, claustrophobic “The Taking of Christ”, a National Gallery loan from Dublin; the severed head in “David with the Head of Goliath”.

Centred on half a dozen Caravaggio paintings, four from the National Gallery, this persuasive exhibition traces how, during Caravaggio’s brief career and in the two decades following his death in 1610 while on the run for murder, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch artists took parts of his revolutionary manner and reworked them according to their sensibilities. All but five works are from British and Irish collections, and the homegrown range is impressive.

So radical was Caravaggio’s suggestive use of light and co-opting of everyday people and things into an oeuvre collapsing hierarchies between religious narrative, still-life, genre, that his influence was irresistible even to enemies. The earliest response here is Giovanni Baglione’s “The Ecstasy of St Francis” (1601): the meditating saint, in an image converging sensuality and devotional fervour, bathed in a glow symbolic of his transportation. Francis, outstretched body forming a dynamic diagonal, is depicted with vigorous naturalism, but the angel supporting him, with crimped hair and mask-like face, is a mannerist construction, a style to which Baglione soon retreated. By 1603 he was pursuing a libel case against Caravaggio.

‘Lot and his Daughters’ (1617-18) by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri
‘Lot and his Daughters’ (1617-18) by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri © Manchester City Galleries

Disputes, brawls, but also adoration, followed Caravaggio everywhere. Exhibited alongside his squealing tease with rosebud lips “Boy bitten by a Lizard” are “A Musician” and “Interior with a Young Man holding a Recorder” by Francesco Buoneri, nicknamed Cecci del Caravaggio and probably the older artist’s lover. They are pure homages: in the formats based on half-length figures, the youths’ knowing gazes, the context of careful, delicious fruit and flower still lifes. So too are the vividly direct bloody gashes brutally pulled open for our inspection in Giovanni Antonio Galli’s “The Incredulity of St Thomas” and “Christ displaying his Wounds” from the 1620s, both modelled after Caravaggio’s 1601 painting.

“The younger ones flocked to him and praised him alone as the only true imitator of nature, looking upon his works as miracles; they vied with each other in following him, stripping their models and placing their light sources high; with no regard for study or teaching, each readily found his master in the piazza or street”, according to 17th-century biographer Giovanni Bellori.

Caravaggio had a fracas with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light; in 1612 Jusepe de Ribera, newly arrived in Rome, demanded permission from his landlady to cut a hole in his roof. In his stark compositions, spotlit wizened, bony old saints and martyrs with sagging skin — “Saint Onuphrius”, “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”. “The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” — emerge from gloomy grounds.

Their macabre religious intensity met Counter-Reformation piety and Ribera cornered a market by his unrivalled skill in applying thick paint for hands and brows to imitate furrows, creases, wrinkles, the real shadows of the impasto contributing to the visceral naturalistic effects. Caravaggio had scant interest in the potential of impasto; Ribera, like all the memorable artists here, forged something individual out of the encounter with Caravaggio.

For Artemisia Gentileschi in “Susannah and the Elders” it was female empathy: this heroine’s expression of inner torment and panicky gestures drawing up her chemise to cover her nudity is exceptionally rare in Old Master iconography. For Guido Reni, Caravaggio’s naturalism animated his own elegant figures and poetic grace, as in “Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom”.

The Dutch Caravaggisti developed chiaroscuro composition into candlelit set pieces, concerned with almost abstracted light effects — Hendrick ter Brugghen’s “The Concert”, Gerrit van Honthorst’s “Christ Before the High Priest” — which would be the conduit of Caravaggio to Rembrandt. French baroque painter Georges de la Tour took Caravaggio’s cast of gamers and gamblers and smoothed out his play of light and shadow to produce flattened, tenebrous genre scenes of intrigue, stillness and silence: “The Dice Players”, “The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs”.

‘Dice Players’ (1620-25) by Nicolas Tournier
‘Dice Players’ (1620-25) by Nicolas Tournier © National Gallery

The greater the artist, the more diverse his influence — yet the more distinctive he is from everyone. In lunar light, Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness”, the show’s top loan, from Kansas, depicts a beautiful brooding teenager, muscular body perfect as the Belvedere Torso, pose that of a pre-romantic hermit, introspective gaze matched by tremendous inner energy, as if answerable to no one.

In the National’s own greatest Caravaggio, “The Supper at Emmaus”, disciples leap from their seats in astonishment at the luminous Christ breaking bread; the innkeeper in the shadows is immobile, prosaic. Chiaroscuro heightens the drama but light is also the metaphor for recognition, truth. The enduring mystery here is the perfection of composition, psychological pitch, fusing of form, meaning, narrative, with which Caravaggio’s works stand out: timeless, immediate, impossible to pin down.

To January 15; National Gallery, Dublin, February 11-May 14; Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, June 17-September 24

Photographs: Nelson Gallery Foundation; Manchester City Galleries; National Gallery

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