Caravaggio – The original master of darkness and light

Beyond Caravaggio

Beyond Caravaggio was the name of a Caravaggio inspired exhibition at the National Gallery exhibition in 2016 that examined the influence of one of art’s true originals, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the exhibition focused on his influence via the Caravaggisti and later painters, Caravaggio’s influence reaches well into to the present day; his use of everyday subjects and of dramatic lighting are cited as an influence on directors like Scorsese and Tarantino, photographers such as Nan Goldin and David LaChapelle and contemporary artists like Jenny Saville and Mat Collishaw.

For me, Caravaggio is a source of inspiration, directly through his work and indirectly through those he has influenced. One of the most important to me of those he has he influenced is Cindy Sherman, who is the subject of another exhibition inspired article on this site: Cindy Sherman – Star of the Films That Never Were. Sherman much admired Caravaggio’s ability to convey psychological depth in his subjects. She felt that “the interplay of light and shadow in his paintings resonates with the complex layers of identity that I seek to explore in my photographs.”

A Real Baroque and Roller

Caravaggio lived a short, turbulent life that was celebrated and notorious in equal measure.  He was orphaned to the plague as a boy of six.  At 11 he apprenticed in Milan but left in haste after wounding a police officer.  At 21 he moved to Rome and gained fame with the success of his first public commissions, but he was regularly in court and jailed on several occasions.  He was known for his drinking and whoring as well his brawling.  His powerful supporters helped smooth things over with the authorities but there was only so much they could do to contain a man overflowing with violence.  According to the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) Caravaggio spend his time in Rome “in the company of his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows—painters and swordsmen—who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’”  He was, as Time Out once noted, a real Baroque and Roller.

In 1606 he had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after he killed a well known pimp in a knife fight.  He spent the rest of his life on the run in fear of his life in Malta, Naples and Sicily. He slept in this clothes and always had his dagger to hand.  His art, unsurprisingly, became darker and he was horribly mutilated by his enemies when they caught up with him in Naples in 1609.  It is likely that they inflicted a sfregio (facial wound), as a visible sign of revenge. He died, still on the run, in 1610 aged 38.

Extreme Chiaroscuro

Pont del Bisbe Barcelona
Strongly contrasting light in Barcelona

Caravaggio’s technique is both distinctive and innovative. He is most famous for his dramatic use of light, an extreme variant of chiaroscuro, using dark shadows to produce strong contrasts between light and dark with an incredible tonal range.  With this he captured form and added drama to his scenes in a way that no one before him had accomplished.  The scenes he painted were spot lit from above; he once had a run in with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light.  It is so modern looking that David Hockney has referred to it as  ‘Hollywood lighting’.   There are claims by Italian researchers that his chiaroscuro is based on a form of photographic technique – the suggestion is that Caravaggio projecting the image of his subjects onto canvas using a lens and mirror and that he treated the canvas with a light-sensitive substance made from crushed fireflies, in order to fix the image.  This hypothesis remains unproven.

A new kind of naturalism

Caravaggio combined dramatic lighting with a new kind of naturalism – painting people from the streets directly from life, and with incredible levels of often dirty hyper-realism created without drawing beforehand. He populated biblical scenes with prostitutes, beggars and thieves, bringing the sacred and the gutter together as he did so and polarising opinion.  He also applied the same level of detail and realism to objects as to the people in his paintings. Great emphasis can be seen in the still life on the table in front of Christ at the ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), for example.  It was this combination of dramatic lighting and realism that created the dramatic pictorial and narrative power he became renowned for.

My Favourite Caravaggio

The Taking of Christ is my favourite work by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio . Painted at the height of his fame, The Taking of Christ is a high contrast, dramatic treatment of the biblical story of betrayal.  It is set in the dark space of the garden of Gethsemane, lit by the moon and by a lantern held by a figure who peers in from the edge of the scene.   This is Caravaggio himself. The painting offers a flash bulb moment of three soldiers in black contemporary armour, their faces largely hidden, who have come with Judas to seize Christ  – one of them grasping his throat with a mailed fist.  The brutality of the soldiers is in contrast with the calm and meek Christ, who offers no resistance, whilst St. John the Evangelist flees in anguish.   It is dense, mysterious and incredibly dramatic.

Favourites From His Followers

The London Beyond Caravaggio exhibition offered many delights from the Caravaggisti and later followers, but two works stood out for me. The first was Christ displaying his Wounds by Giovanni Antonio Galli (nicknamed Lo Spadarino because his father was a sword smith).   This painting is as hyper real is it is strange.   A pale Jesus, lit by light that appears to come from nowhere, and naked except for his shroud, holds the wound on this side apart with hands holed by nails.  He makes direct eye contact with us with an expression that is full of accusation.

The second is the The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera.  Saint Bartholomew’s executioner sharpens his knife in preparation of the flaying his about to perform – the knife and steel forming a symbolic cross.  Bartholomew stretches out his arms to heaven, creating a powerful diagonal, his face lit by grace as well as light.  The executioner’s expression is inscrutable, which makes the painting more disturbing.

Caravaggio’s Influence on Photography

Caravaggio’s influence on photography is evident in the works of photographers who sought to capture the same sense of drama and realism seen in his paintings. Another photographer I admire, Bill Brandt, known for the drama black-and-white images, acknowledged Caravaggio’s impact on his work, describing his use of light and shadow as “a revelation.” I feel exactly the same way.

Caravaggio’s influence on photography is not limited to his technique; his illumination of the gritty realities of life influenced photographers like Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, who sought to capture the raw and unfiltered aspects of how we live.

Caravaggio and Film

Those who make moving pictures have also found inspiration in Caravaggio’s work. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have both acknowledged Caravaggio’s influence. Scorsese, in particular, has frequently cited the painter’s use of light and shadow as a significant influence on his cinematography, saying, “Caravaggio’s paintings have a cinematic quality; they tell a story through visuals, and I’ve always been drawn to that narrative power.”

Caravaggio’s influence is not confined to directors; production designers and cinematographers also draw inspiration from his compositions. The interplay between light and shadow in Caravaggio’s paintings finds its counterpart in the carefully crafted lighting of films, creating a visual language that conveys emotion and enhances the story.

Caravaggio Around The World

Caravaggio’s masterpieces are dispersed throughout the world’s most renowned art institutions. Here’s a short list, including some the names of the most notable works: The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy (Medusa); The Vatican Museums Pinacoteca, Vatican City (The Supper at Emmaus); The Borghese Gallery, Rome (David with the Head of Goliath); The Louvre, Paris (Death of the Virgin); The National Gallery, London (Supper at Emmaus – another version); The Metropolitan Museum, New York (The Musicians) and The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Judith Beheading Holofernes). I’d like to see them all.