Caravaggio’s cinematic painting: Fictionalising art and biography in the artist biopic

  • Keeley Saunders University of Kent


Explorations of the artist in the biopic genre are often formulaic in approach. The biographical narrative, modelled on the literary monograph, celebrates a public figure who overcomes challenges to rise to the top of their field. These films traditionally present the artist’s life and work as intrinsically involved with each other so that the artwork can only be explained through contextualising biographical knowledge. Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), in the vein of his highly personal, experimental filmmaking, is not a biopic in this traditional sense. Taking advantage of what little is known about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian painter widely recognised as the first great artist of the Baroque period and a master of chiaroscuro, Jarman constructs a heavily fictional ‘biographical’ narrative. This narrative is built upon historical speculation, personal identification, and most significantly, his subjective interpretation and visualisation of the paintings themselves.

A series of tableaux vivants, delicately postured, almost still, recreations of the paintings, provide the narrative impetus in Caravaggio. Many of these are situated as poses in preparation for Caravaggio's painting. These recreations are removed from their historical context, disregarding the artworks’ chronology and misplacing characters and events to construct a part-Jarman/part-Caravaggio profile – fictionalising both art and biography. This paper explores Jarman’s intricate appropriation of the art and biography of the artist in Caravaggio, and how this is implemented, and complicated, to serve his own narrative agenda. Developing André Bazin’s discussion about the adoption of one medium into another in ‘Painting and Cinema,’ I analyse the tableaux representing The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600), The Entombment of Christ (1602-03), and Death of the Virgin (1606). This analysis takes place on three levels: firstly, art-history ‘fidelity;’ secondly, the perversion of the self-portrait; and finally, with direct reference to Bazin’s essay, the editing of the art-image.

Author Biography

Keeley Saunders, University of Kent
December 21, 2012
How to Cite
Saunders, K. (2012). Caravaggio’s cinematic painting: Fictionalising art and biography in the artist biopic. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 5(3).