Caravaggio’s "Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," 1595-96.
Caravaggio's "Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," 1595-96. (LACMA)

Moments into "Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy" - a new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art - you encounter a large close-cropped portrait of an aristocrat caught in what has been described as a "fleeting, ambiguous moment."

Cast against a muted backdrop, he wears a half smile on his illuminated face and his eyes seem fixed on something just beyond the canvas's edge. He rests one hand on an open book on the table and grips the chair with the other as light draws across his fingers, revealing the space and perspective between.

The contrast between light and dark coupled with the emotional power and striking realism found in the recently discovered "Portrait of Maffeo Barberini," 1596-7, are signatures of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a 17th-century Italian painter who lived fast, died young and left a provocative corpus of work.

Caravaggio’s "Ecce Homo," 1605.
Caravaggio's "Ecce Homo," 1605. (LACMA)

An unprecedented eight such paintings created during his brief career are on display together for the first time in California, now through Feb. 10. The major exhibition was organized in partnership with the Musee Fabre de Montpellier Agglomeration, the Musee des Augustins, Toulouse, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art under the sponsorship of the French Regional American Museum Exchange with major funding by The Ahmanson Foundation.

Presented at LACMA under the auspices of "2013: Year of Italian Culture," the exhibition documents Caravaggio's widespread influence.

His style and compositions were imitated and admired during and after his lifetime by a host of painters across Europe, including France, Spain and the Netherlands. Fifty of those works are in the show.

"The people who followed his examples were completely bowled over by what they saw, and they did things which were not imitations but somehow responded to this incredible stimulus that Caravaggio provided," says J. Patrice Marandel, the Robert H. Ahmanson chief curator of European art at LACMA.

Caravaggio took his name from the small town near Milan where he was born in 1573. At 19, he moved to Rome to paint and quickly established himself as a favorite among the city's wealthy patrons, including Barberini.

"Rome around 1600 is one of those privileged moments in the history of Western culture," Marandel says. "These are moments where there is a kind of energy that happens throughout and usually there is one artist or a couple of artists who are leading the pack.

"Caravaggio is definitely one of those alpha artists."

In addition to portraits, he cast his ordinary looking subjects in genre scenes and - increasingly - religious compositions without the aid of drawings as preparation.

The sleeping figure in his "Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," 1595-6, is thought by scholars to be a self-portrait of the artist - not unheard of in Caravaggio's works.

Caravaggio’s "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,"  ca. 1604-05.
Caravaggio's "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," ca. 1604-05. (LACMA)
In "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," 1604-5, he imagines the second cousin of Jesus as a teen barely clothed in animal skins and a red robe - symbolizing the bloodshed still to come.

His "Ecce Homo," 1605, shows an off-center shadowy Pontius Pilate presenting a lit-up Jesus - his eyes cast down, bare chested, bound and wearing a crown of thorns - to the angry mob demanding his crucifixion.

And he's put you, the viewer, in the scene - another trick his followers incorporated into their works, such as in Gerrit van Honthorst's "Christ Crowned with Thorns," 1617, in which a group of men mock a half-naked Jesus and present him with a broken stick.

Giovanni Martinelli's "Death Comes to the Banquet Table," 1630-40, puts viewers at the table where a skeletal Death, with an hourglass in hand, is informing a member of the party that his time is up.

When the artist Giovanni Baglione reproduced "Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy" as "The Ecstasy of Saint Francis," 1601, Caravaggio responded by posting libelous statements about him.

Baglione responded with a lawsuit and won.

In 1606, Caravaggio fled Rome when he was sought by police for murdering another man over either a woman or a game of tennis. But the fugitive artist continued to paint for his patrons.

He went from Naples to Malta to Sicily. 

When he returned to Rome to seek pardon from the pope he came down with what Marandel believes to have been malaria, killing him in a matter of days, at age 39.

One of his last paintings is "The Denial of Saint Peter," 1610.

Like many of his paintings, this one went against the fabric of what was acceptable at the time. Using brutal brushstrokes Caravaggio casts a light on a servant woman who is accusing an illuminated Peter of being a follower of Jesus - an association he is in the process of denying to the shadowy figure of a Roman soldier, though clearly with great remorse.

Look closely and you'll see his downcast eyes rimmed with tears.

As Marandel explains, paintings like this "may not be the prettiest in the show but they are the most profound and they really take you to a level that the other artists do not."

Sandra Barrera 818-713-3728 sandra.barrera@dailynews.com

Follow Sandra Barrera on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sandrabarrera18

Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy

What: An exhibition devoted to the legacy of one of the most influential painters in European history and his followers.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 10.

Where: Resnick Pavilion, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

Tickets: $20 or $27 (with audio guide); free or $6 (with audio guide) for museum members and children 17 and under. A ticket to the Caravaggio show also grants admission to all of the museum's galleries, including the "Stanley Kubrick" exhibition.

Information: 323-857-6000 or www.lacma.org.