Crime Writing

The Caravaggio Masterpieces That Inspired My Novel A NAME IN BLOOD

The heart of my novel A NAME IN BLOOD, out in the UK on 5 July, is my love of Caravaggio’s paintings. Though the idea for the novel comes from the Italian maestro’s mysterious disappearance and death, it was these works which drew me to him. Here are some of the paintings that feature in the novel.

The three “Matthew” paintings in the French church made Caravaggio’s reputation. They were his first great “history paintings,” which at the time meant paintings of notable biblical scenes. His light-dark (chiaroscuro) technique is most evident in “The Calling.” Many’s the hour I’ve spent in the corner of San Luigi, feeding Euros into the light-meter so I can marvel at this work. Usually critics think Matthew is the old fellow third from left. But I think he’s pointing at the youth with his head down…

The Musicians, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 Young Caravaggio’s self-portrait is second from the right. 1595, age 23 or 24.

St Catherine of Alexandria, Fondacion Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

 This painting first made me fall in love with Caravaggio. I was alone with it in the room where it’s housed. The saint, who’s about to meet her death, seemed to watch me. I couldn’t leave. It was as though I was abandoning her to her fate, so present did she seem. So I stayed a long time and…couldn’t help but think about a novel… The model is Fillide, who appears in A NAME IN BLOOD.

Martha and Mary Magdalene, Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit

Fillide again, with a second woman whose beauty is so much greater for the way Caravaggio disguises her in the shadow. The convex mirror may be a clue to Caravaggio’s use of projected images to help him paint.

Portrait of Pope Paul V, Palazzo Borghese (private collection), Rome

The nasty, grasping little eyes of the Pope truly raise the hairs on the back of your neck when you’re before this painting. Caravaggio was no flatterer.

Madonna of Loreto, Church of Sant'Agostino, Rome

In A NAME IN BLOOD, this is how Caravaggio sees Lena Antognetti — the model for this Virgin — on the doorstep of her rundown home.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Galleria Doria Pamphilij, Rome

The model for the auburn-headed virgin, Anna Bianchini, died of syphilis.

The Death of the Virgin, Musee du Louvre, Paris

Convention had the Virgin rising up to heaven with the angels. Caravaggio painted her — Lena in this case — as an absolutely dead woman. It looks better to us, for that reason. It also looked blasphemous to many contemporaries.

Madonna with the Serpent, Galleria Borghese, Rome

For me, simply the greatest painting ever. Much of what happens in A NAME IN BLOOD was dictated by the attraction I felt to the Madonna here — or more specifically to Lena, Caravaggio’s model.

Our Lady of Mercy (Seven Works of Mercy), Chapel of the Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples

I stood a very long time before this painting. The street noise was loud from outside. I saw how connected Caravaggio was to ordinary people. So connected that he made them his saints and martyrs. The Madonna is, once again, Lena.

Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt, Musee du Louvre, Paris

Is this a portrait of the Grand Master or of the young boy who was his page? Caravaggio, as usual, doesn’t take the traditional path.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist, Co-Cathedral of St John, Valletta, Malta

Standing in the cavernous oratory where this masterpiece hangs is like watching a movie unfold before you. It’s a still image, yet Caravaggio captured what went before and what was to come. I believe he changed his technique to make this possible. It’s central to the art story-arc of A NAME IN BLOOD.

The Flagellation of Christ, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples

The Flagellation is approached down a long gallery through other smaller galleries at the Capodimonte. Though you pass by masterpieces by Raphael et al, you have eyes only for this shocking, shadowy work. No artist can make everything else in a gallery seem like rubbish the way Caravaggio can.

The Denial of St Peter, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

At the end, Caravaggio pushed the darkness to an extreme. Look how it lifts the most important details — the gesture and face of Peter — out into the light.

David with the Head of Goliath, Galleria Borghese, Rome

The most horrifying and personal of Caravaggio’s biblical images. Probably the last thing he painted, while he was in Naples in 1610.

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