I have just been ravished by Caravaggio.


The exhibition at the Tokyo Museum Of Western Art – Caravaggio and his friends, rivals, and enemies – featured some of the baroque painter’s most iconic images, including his Bacchus and Medusa as well as the Narcissus, a murky, shadow-filled painting you could easily get lost in, caught between reality and reflection.


But it was the above painting, Mary Magdalene In Ecstacy, that most transfixed me. A world premiere – it was only recently discovered – this strange,  powerfully ambiguous painting ( which the  image above does no justice to: in fact shown this picture by Duncan on the train up here it made almost no impression on me ) in actual reality had me rooted to the spot: mesmerized. I could have stood before her, drinking her in, all day.


Is this religious ecstacy? Is it sexual ecstacy? Is she near death? The expression in her eyes and on her lips in the presence of the real painting is beyond description, palpable in the hushed melee of people gathering round it, like me, in stunned contemplation. The life force present in the painting, the force of its energy, were overwhelming. It is the best painting I have ever seen.



This exhibition also took me back to my time in Rome, when I would wander aimlessly around the eternal city, stopping in a church or two to admire the Caravaggio triptychs – so perfect in their rightful context – as they also were at an exhibition of his I went to there ( almost a quarter of a century ago, now) where the lights would be turned off at intervals and his miraculous chiaroscuro effects shown to their best advantage. His world of the high and the low; of saints and sinners; of priests and angels and murderers and street prostitutes, captured exquisitely, and perpetually, in the passionate stroke of a brush.











We emerged from the exhibition, had a cake and coffee in the cafe overlooking the garden as the feelings from that painting almost resonated me to tears ( I love the ABSORPTION of such an exhibition; the transference of centuries; to think that Mary Magdalene has been in that frightening, unearthly, painfully euphoric state for four centuries already and hopefully will be for all eternity; it takes you out of yourself for a time, and lets other souls, from other times, fill you up for a moment instead. Purification. A catharsis) but outside, on sale along with the usual memorabilia, along with an array of all things Italian – wine, olive oil, artisanal crafts and objets d’art ( this exhibition was held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Italy and Japan ( and the Japanese are total Italophiles : I usually go to the packed out Italian film festival in Ginza every year )), was a selection of perfumes ( really room fragrances, though most of them are so good you could wear them as perfumes ) by Dr Vranjes di Firenze, a Florentine purveyor of fine fragrance who has a huge range of perfumes of every olfactory style, from airy and refreshing ( I have also enjoyed the atypically natural smelling Acqua and Aria ), hale and herbaceous – I once had a bottle of Timo Lavanda – a thyme scent I really enjoyed. – through oriental ( the delicious Mandarino Vaniglia ) and the subtly sense- inviting wild fig perfume Fico Selvatico, pictured above .



Only Rosso Nobile, though, the quintessential Dr Vranjes perfume and the most popular, seemed to have a vague olfactory connection to the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio: like his flushed, sensual Bacchus slyly holding his glass of vino rosso, this scent is rich, drenched in wine grapes, and like everything else at this exhibition, made me just yearn to jump on a plane back to Rome.





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  1. Lilybelle

    This post makes me yearn to jump on a plane to Italy too. Er…maybe not a plane given recent events. Maybe a ship.

  2. Captures exactly how I feel about so many things, including Italy and things Italian.
    I love Caravaggio. I remember how I felt when I saw the second Sacrifice of Isaac in the Uffizi. I took that feeling with me around Florence for days and days.

    • Today’s feeling has really surprised me. I was really moved by that painting, possibly the first time in my life, to be honest. Duncan is the painting person: but this one totally killed me. Honestly the picture I have put here isn’t even close to how it looked in the flesh. I might even pay again to go and see it. It was so disturbingly beautiful it killed me.

      • It’s amazing how looking at the real thing can have a huge emotional impact when looking at a small photograph does nothing.
        I remember when I was at the Uffizi, there was a group of Japanese tourists, all holding up camcorders and walking past the paintings, recording them but never dropping the camcorder to look at the artworks with their own eyes. It was very strange indeed. Perhaps you would understand what that was all about. I couldn’t fathom it.

      • Of course. They were just ‘doing’ the Uffizi. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, not that I want to reinforce the ‘Japanese with cameras’ stereotype. The same thing happened at a contemporary art Biennale I went to last Autumn. There were these silly little childish ‘stamp cards’ that you could stamp to say that you had been to see each art work – they were dotted in abandoned old houses throughout the mountain hot spring town – and it really INFURIATED me to see people just coming in to one particular venue, glancing around for a millisecond but only being interested in getting the stamp. I don’t think it’s only J-people (not everyone can appreciate art and I truly believe that – it depends on your nervous system and sensitivity), but the herd mentality is certainly very strong here.

        The people yesterday though at the museum were different. And certain very impactful paintings did get the desired result.

  3. We saw the Caravaggio show in Budapest a couple of years ago and loved it. Also saw some in Europe last month.
    What I do wish is that we had you with us to help understand more. When confronted by such beauty I realise what a Philistine I am .
    Portia x

  4. Looks stunning and fascinating! It’s wonderful when a work of art can captivate and enthrall you in this way. I have just returned from Oslo and had a similar experience in the magnificent new opera house there. It’s a work of architectural genius full of shadows, reflections, glass, soft wood and light; you can walk to its roof and look out over water or look down into it and watch everyone milling around. I felt I was on some fjord! Sitting in the restaurant before the opera (I saw Rolf Wallin / Mark Ravenhill’s Elysium) I couldn’t stop smiling and kept feeling tears welling up through the sheer joy of the building’s beauty. I am genuinely in love with it! It sounds like your Mary Magdalene needs a return visit. There are so many art secrets hidden in representations of the Magdalene; perhaps you are intuiting something. Either way it sounds like a return trip to Rome would be a positive thing! Sounds a fab day.

    • As does your Oslo trip. It sounds completely wonderful. I also have strong reactions to buildings and architecture, and that one sounds just up my street. But I don’t, really, with paintings, not like this.

      As you say, I might have to go back. The expression on the face in the image here and on the museum post card just really did NOT capture what I saw in the real thing which was eerie and truly otherworldly, deeply dramatic, and pulsating with some kind of mystery that as you say I might be intuiting in some way.

      Vive L’Art!

      Funny also, that despite the obvious beauty of Italy that constantly surrounds you, I was actually bored shitless there after one year and probably would be again: the way of expressing oneself gets on my wick very quickly (probably because I am equally extreme and so I remain unimpressed by the ‘passion’ or whatever as I can do all that myself). I still prefer Japan. But Italy IN Japan, is like a jewel in a box, and it takes on added beauty.

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