Paint it black

On the run from a death sentence, Caravaggio found a deeper, more urgent voice and produced painting

Dying at the age of 38, Caravaggio left the world with a tantalising sense of what might have been. But his achievement does not seem incomplete. Far from it: the National Gallery's overwhelming survey of his final years feels satisfyingly fulfilled. Not that the mood is at all optimistic. The painter's ever-darkening vision becomes clear in the very first room of the show, where one version of The Supper at Emmaus is contrasted with another completed five years later.

The first canvas, executed in 1601, is a bravura display of Caravaggio's prowess. It seizes on the drama of Christ's appearance to the apostles on Easter Day. One of them grips the sides of his chair, as if reacting to a seismic convulsion. Another apostle throws both his arms outwards, so that his left hand appears to invade our space. In the later version, however, this cataclysmic dynamism is replaced by an air of deep foreboding. The apostles' gestures are hesitant; they look depressed rather than elated. A haggard woman appears especially downcast as she waits to serve a rack of lamb, which sits, a sacrificial offering, on the kind of platter that Caravaggio soon used to carry John the Baptist's severed head. And blackness smothers a surprising amount of the picture surface, making us feel that the whole scene is about to be engulfed by eternal night.

Caravaggio probably painted this dejected image soon after fleeing Rome in 1606. He had killed an opponent in a duel. With a capital sentence on his head, he would never return to the city where his precocious flair had provoked indignant opposition and won such enthusiastic patronage. The work in this show is the art produced by a man on the run. Moving nervously from Naples to Malta and Sicily, he may well have suspected that time was running out fast. He had only four more years to live, and the prevailing tenor of his late work suggests that he felt under a permanent sentence of death. He returned, time and again, to a relentless obsession with mortality.

There is no evidence that Caravaggio felt guilty about killing Ranuccio Tomassoni. He must have suffered from a terrible sense of calamity, however. Most of his finest paintings from this period are concerned with brutality, suffering and extinction. St Andrew, crucified for two days, wins over the crowd with the eloquence of his preaching. The people attempt to help him down from the cross, but Andrew is so determined to die that everyone becomes miraculously paralysed.

Caravaggio cannot have shared this death wish. His final paintings are, by a paradox, charged with a vitality so strong that the brush marks grow looser, wilder and far more emotionally expressive than in his earlier canvases. Traces of workshop assistance are rare. To have attained so much during these four years, he must have worked fast. And the canvases are daringly simplified, casting off extraneous detail in order to concentrate on visceral essence alone.

The pervasive darkness helped Caravaggio to achieve this overriding aim. By shrouding an immense painting of the Flagellation in penumbral gloom, he was able to spotlight the interaction between the figures who fascinated him. They are caught up in the violence of the moment before whipping begins. Tying Christ to a column, his assailants yell while they pull his hair and kick him into submission. Jesus staggers under the force of their animal blows. Like a brilliant cinematographer, Caravaggio made the martyr's blanched and beaten flesh gleam in the light. His pallor intensified, he looks irreversibly sickly.

At every turn, we are dazed by the impact of chiaroscuro. In some paintings, it has the ferocity of flash photography. In others, the artist's involvement with extremes of light and dark is less invasive. A macabre image called Sleeping Cupid has a more restful effect on our eyes, even though the solitary figure is surrounded by inky night. He could simply be resting, and uses a quiver bristling with darts as a makeshift pillow while resting his left hand on a bow. Yet he might be ailing, or even dead, given the funereal character of the blackness above him. Caravaggio was now in a mood to find melancholy in the most consoling subjects.

Take The Adoration of the Shepherds, a monumental canvas painted for a church in Messina. Dispensing with the array of worshippers who so often surge into nativity scenes, Caravaggio focused on three astounded peasants and Joseph. They kneel and gaze at the weary Virgin clutching her baby on an uncomfortable litter of straw. The men are alive with wonder, but at the same time full of consternation and sadness. Seeing the Christ child lying in such a vulnerable state, the shepherds appear to foresee the anguish of his martyrdom. The well-worn horizontal and vertical planks making up the wall of the rudimentary stable bear an ominous resemblance to the wooden cross.

Far more figures are included in The Raising of Lazarus, an even taller painting executed for the high altar of the Padri Crociferi in Messina. But Caravaggio made sure that all the animated onlookers reacting to Lazarus's miraculous emergence are confined to the lower half. Above them, the entire upper half of the picture is little more than a dark, mysteriously smoky emptiness, which cannot distract us from the momentous drama engendered by Christ's outstretched finger. He points straight at the corpse, commanding it to regain life. And Lazarus obliges, flinging his naked arms out in wild, sideways thrusts. Nothing could be more expressive of jolting, electric energy, leaping through limbs long since interred in the cold earth.

Lazarus's head still hangs down loosely, as though in thrall to death. But Martha presses her cheek against his, willing him to be kindled by the warmth of her loving flesh. His limp legs, one lying across the other, retain the inert position they must have occupied under the ground. Next to them, however, a bearded man pulls up the heavy gravestone. He gazes back at an astonishing burst of supernatural light, as do two of his companions. Yet the men clustered excitedly around Christ all stare across at Lazarus, gaping at the corpse's reawakening. Caravaggio's ability to convey the potency of light here becomes wholly spellbinding. Its brightness dances over Lazarus's emaciated body and flares, above all, on the arm that gestures defiantly at a broken skull just below his fingertips.

Although it is the outright masterpiece of the exhibition, The Raising of Lazarus is untypical given the hope it seeks to arouse. The remorseless emphasis on obliteration returns with the final painting, in which David holds up the severed head of Goliath like a gruesome trophy. Widely identified as the artist's last self-portrait, the vanquished warrior frowns with gaping mouth as blood splashes down from his butchered neck. Prophesying the imminence of his own death, Caravaggio may well be yelling in protest at all the years he will lose. And even the triumphant David, with a phallic sword shooting up from his groin, looks regretful as he gazes down at this enraged, inconsolable victim.

"Caravaggio: the final years" is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) until 22 May

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The Bling Bling List