Caravaggio -Lighting the Way

I had decided that our next Blog would be about Light and J's Blog on Mattia Preti and the link with the style of Caravaggio has provided the perfect segue. So we will first look at Caravaggio and then move onto learning a little more about the importance of light in a painting.

Caravaggio’s real name was Michelangelo Merisi but he took the name Caravaggio from the town where he grew up near Milan where he was born in 1571. From the 1590s until his death in 1610 he painted in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily - on the move to avoid a murder charge! Whatever his personal life was like, one thing is certain- he was a brilliant artist. His subject matter ranged from still life to genre scenes to religious themes
Cheaters and tricksters were a very popular subject for C16th-C17th genre artists who depicted everyday life. This is one of my most favourite paintings- The Cardsharps painted by Caravaggio in about 1594.
(Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth)

And this is Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.

Caravaggio stands out in the World of Art for many reasons but today we will consider the two main ones. First, he caused considerable consternation within his society, especially from Church Officials of the time because he painted his religious figures as he imagined them to be- humans, mere mortals with all the human failings we possess amongst us. To the horror of many people, Caravaggio even painted divine subjects as prostitutes as see in The Death of the Virgin painted in 1606 just before his death.
The Church Officials were shocked when they recognised the model Caravaggio had used for the Virgin Mary. She was a well known courtesan whose body had been found floating in a river.

Caravaggio also often included himself in the paintings using his own experiences to help achieve a reality not seen before in art. Young Sick Bacchus (1593) is thought to be based on Caravaggio's own image.

We must remember that Caravaggio followed on from the idealised images created by Michelangelo so it is little wonder that he received considerable criticism when he made his subjects so lifelike including a barefoot Virgin in Madonna de Loreto .
If we zoom in on the image of the female pilgrim on the right you will see what I mean about Caravaggio's ability to create a sense of the reality of the situation. Isn't this the most beautiful image of an elderly woman, awed and inspired by the presence of the Virgin Mary.

But Caravaggio is even more famous for his ability to create dramatic contrast between light and dark in his paintings: a technique that is called tenebrism. This was his modus operandi, his trademark and ironically reflects the light and dark between his tragic and violent personal life and the genius of his artistic gift. Tenebrism comes from the Italian tenebroso meaning dark, gloomy, mysterious. But let us consider Caravaggio’s painting of Bacchus for a moment.
Bacchus (Dionysus in the Roman world) was the Greek god of wine, madness and ecstasy. In this painting Caravaggio has portrayed Bacchus as a 17th century Italian teenager- appropriate in any time period. Note that Bacchus is holding the wine in his left hand which has lead to the speculation that Caravaggio painted this image using a mirror with himself as the model. Furthermore, and this is delightful, upon the painting being restored a tiny reflection of Caravaggio, paintbrush in hand, was also discovered on the wine carafe! (Ref:

Caravaggio’s painting technique arose out of a style called chiaroscuro (Italian for light-dark) which refers to the use of strong contrasts between light and dark usually encompassing the whole composition. Here is the master painter at work in his interpretation of St Jerome.

What Caravaggio was doing was to use shadow to emphasise the highlighted aspects of the image. You will also note how dominant the shadows are possibly because there is little variation in the colour tones which look to me to have been painted with Burnt Umber and Raw Umber.

Caravaggio’s paintings mainly depict interior scenes but the light is more like sunlight certainly not the diffused candlelight which would have lit the interiors in the C16th. This point is illustrated clearly by the external light source illuminating the subjects in The Calling of Saint Matthew painted in about 1599.

David Hockey, one of the most influential British artists of the C20th has suggested that Caravaggio was using a form of the camera obscura-like device which used a mirror to reflect the image of a model standing in bright light into a darkly lit room. The camera obscura was certainly being used by the the C17th Dutch Masters, such as Johannes Vermeer, but the jury is still out on how Caravaggio managed to create such lifelike subjects.

Before we conclude today there is one more aspect of Caravaggio’s paintings I would like to point out. He used what is termed co-extensive space which means he extended the action of the composition beyond the picture plane and into the viewer’s space. He wanted to involve the viewer in the narrative of his image. Look carefully at this painting Supper at Emmaus (1601). Don't you feel part of the scene?
The arms of the apostle on the right stretches into the viewer's space while the resurrected Christ's right hand seems to embrace his audience- one that is far larger than those gathered around him at the table. Even the teetering basket of fruit seems as if it is about to fall to the viewer's feet. (Ref:

Caravaggio had a remarkable effect on the world of painting especially in terms of the Baroque style evolving at the time. Some of the artists who followed his techniques include Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt. The artists who followed his style were often called the Caravaggisti or Caravagesques.

But Caravaggio's influence goes much further as many see his works as containing the seeds of what painting was to become. The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated, What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.

Look at the light around you. Notice how it falls; notice how it changes. Study the contrasts of light and shade caused by the sun.

Anne Newman

Oil Painter in realistic genre style, predominantly buildings and people. To continue the discussion contact Anne on or phone +61 407 516 522

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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