Caravaggio's Influence (A Focus on some of the Art from Stanford's Cantor Center Art Museum)

Caravaggio (1569-1609)
Michelangelo Meresi Caravaggio 
Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard c1600
oil on canvas
Italian Baroque
Tenebrism means using light as a spotlighting effect in a murky or dark scene.
ala prima-directly onto canvas; paints directly form life

Form:  This allegorical portrait incorporates a low key or earth toned palette combined with a very close point of view.  Caravaggio demonstrates a good mastery of the human face as well as  chiaroscuro .  According to the Brittanica, chiaroscuro (from Italian chiaro, "light"; scuro, "dark"), which is technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects. Caravaggio also uses an intense spotlight on his face while the rest of the picture plane is murky surrounding him.  This is called tenebrism and it is a way of creating a focus on a particular element in a work and also gives the work a sense of heightened drama.
The painting also feels like an immediate kind of "snapshot" of a young boy dressed in neoclassic clothing caught at the instance when a lizard bites his fingers.  The immediacy of the painting is complimented by the direct gaze and the facial expression of the figure.  This painting appears to be painted directly from life without using any previous studies or drawings.  This is called ala prima- (in the first) which means painting directly from observation onto canvas.
This painting also demonstrates Caravaggio's skill beyond his ability to paint the human form.  The clear vessel of water is what is referred to as an artist's conceit or concetto (italian for conceit) because painting a transparent vessel is one of the harder things to paint.  Caravaggio also has a fine command of painting drapery.
Even though the figure in this painting is placed in the visual center of the picture plane the light which rakes in from the upper left hand corner creates a strong diagonal across the picture plane.  The use of a diagonal in the composition of the picture plane is a very Baroque device.
Iconography:  Caravaggio was a rather outrageous and controversial man.  Many of his paintings demonstrate a rebellious and often ribald sense of humor.  This is an allegorical portrait of lust.  The young boy is probably the type of young man that Caravaggio held as the object of his desire.  Young male prostitutes were fairly common in cities during this time (as they are now) and it has been suggested by some sources that Caravaggio was a homosexual and a pederast.  The lizard hanging from the boy's finger may represent the cost of the lust and the cherries may be a reference to the concepts concerning "forbidden fruit" or possibly even virginity.
Context:  Caravaggio was an,
Italian baroque painter, who was the most revolutionary artist of his time and the best exemplar of naturalistic painting in the early 17th century. Originally named Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio was born September 28, 1573, in the Lombardy hill town of Caravaggio, from which his professional name is derived. Orphaned at age 11, he was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano of Milan for four years. At some time between 1588 and 1592, Caravaggio went to Rome and worked as an assistant to Giuseppe Cesari, also known as the Cavaliere d'Arpino, for whom he executed fruit and flower pieces (now lost). Caravaggio's personal life was turbulent. He was often arrested and imprisoned. He fled Rome for Naples in 1606 when charged with murder. Later that year he traveled to Malta, was made a  knight, or cavaliere, of the Maltese order. In October of 1608, Caravaggio was again arrested and, escaping from a Maltese jail, went to Syracuse in Sicily. He died on the beach at Port'Ercole  in Tuscany on July 18, 1610, of a fever contracted after a mistaken arrest.


Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit c. 1597 
Oil on canvas, 46 x 64 cm 
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan
Italian Baroque
Form: This is a still life painting which is painted from an extraordinary point of view.  The basket and its contents are depicted from eye level.  The virtuosity of how realistically the surfaces and details of the basket, its contents, the moisture on the fruit and even the hints of decay are expressions of Caravaggio's skills.  It's interesting to note that this is often referred to as the completely dedicated still life painting of its kind since Pompeii (79 CE). Iconography:  Paintings like this one depicting fruit is symbolic of the pleasures of every day life and perhaps of the delicacies one might desire.  Fruit was not available all year and it is one of the fleeting pleasures.  The depictions of fruit and other delicacies, such as Herakleitos' Unswept Floor (fig 6-58) are references to the wealth of the patron and the skill of the artist.
The depictions of the decay caused by the worms in the apple and on the leaves may be a memento mori.  That although these are delicacies and treasured parts of enjoying life, sometimes such things are transitory and fleeting.


Caravaggio. Boy with a Basket of Fruit, c1593
oil on canvas, 27.5x26"
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Italian Baroque
In this image, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, c1593, Caravaggio combines the formal qualities and iconographic elements of Boy Being Bitten by a Lizard and Basket of Fruit. Why do you think he does this and what message is being communicated? 


Conversion of St. Paul- 1601 by Caravaggio
Italian Baroque
Form:  This painting is typical of Caravaggio's style and exhibits all the hallmarks of it.  Here we see heightened tenebrism and chiaroscuro as well as an ambiguous use of space.  Caravaggio almost always pushes al his figures up against the front of the picture plane and creates an ambiguous and unrecognizable environment.  For Caravaggio the background and environment are often unimportant and some critics have charged that he didn't bother with the background or had trouble unifying his composition and so just create a well of darkness to unify it. In this image Saul of Tarsus, the saint-to-be, is represented flat on his back, his arms thrown up, while an old servant appears to maneuver the horse away from its fallen master. The horse fills the picture as if it were the hero, and its explicitness and the angle from which it is viewed might betray some irreverence on the part of the artist for this subject.  One critic who objected to the intertangling of the limbs of the horse and figures called the painting an "accident in a blacksmith's shop."
Caravaggio used real people for his models and so the clothing and faces incorporate a strong  genre element. 
Iconography:  Light in Caravaggio's paintings is an icon of God's power and of enlightenment.  Caravaggio seems to literally be translating the imagery from the Bible.  According to Acts Chapter 27, Paul describes, 
"On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'
I replied, 'Who are you, sir?' And he said to me, 'I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.'
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
10 I asked, 'What shall I do, sir?' The Lord answered me, 'Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told about everything appointed for you to do.'
11 Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light, I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.
12 "A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law, and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
13 came to me and stood there and said, 'Saul, my brother, regain your sight.' And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
14 Then he said, 'The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
15 for you will be his witness 2 before all to what you have seen and heard.
Also see Acts Chapter 9

For full text of the passage go here:
Context:  Caravaggio's Conversion of Paul, was considered scandalous because in it he devotes so much of the canvas to the horse's rear.  Visually he is literally "mooning" the audience.  Observers also found Paul's prone position and the intermingling of his limbs with the horses somewhat objectionable.

Caravaggio  (1569-1609) 
Calling of St. Matthew- 1597-1601, 
Oil on canvas, located in the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.
Italian Baroque

St. Matthew Cycle (Contarelli Chapel) c1602
Rome,St.Luigi dei Francesi
The paintings in situ.
Italian Baroque
Form: Even though the figures in this painting are arranged in a band across the front of the picture plane, the light which rakes in from the upper right hand corner creates a strong diagonal across the picture plane.  The use of a diagonal in the composition of the picture plane is a very Baroque device. From "Caravaggio", by Alfred Moir:
 "The subject traditionally was represented either indoors or out; sometimes Saint Matthew is shown inside a building, with Christ outside (following the Biblical text) summoning him through a window. Both before and after Caravaggio the subject was often used as a pretext for anecdotal genre paintings. Caravaggio may well have been familiar with earlier Netherlandish paintings of money lenders or of gamblers seated around a table like Saint Matthew and his associates.
"Caravaggio represented the event as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The sequence of actions before and after this moment can be easily and convincingly re-created. The tax-gatherer Levi (Saint Matthew's name before he became the apostle) was seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day's proceeds, the group lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, His eyes veiled, with His halo the only hint of divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of His right hand, all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor, summons Levi. Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say, "Who, me?", his right hand remaining on the coin he had been counting before Christ's entrance.
"The two figures on the left, derived from a 1545 Hans Holbein print representing gamblers unaware of the appearance of Death, are so concerned with counting the money that they do not even notice Christ's arrival; symbolically their inattention to Christ deprives them of the opportunity He offers for eternal life, and condemns them to death. The two boys in the center do respond, the younger one drawing back against Levi as if seeking his protection, the swaggering older one, who is armed, leaning forward a little menacingly. Saint Peter gestures firmly with his hand to calm his potential resistance. The dramatic point of the picture is that for this moment, no one does anything. Christ's appearance is so unexpected and His gesture so commanding as to suspend action for a shocked instant, before reaction can take place. In another second, Levi will rise up and follow Christ - in fact, Christ's feet are already turned as if to leave the room. The particular power of the picture is in this cessation of action. It utilizes the fundamentally static medium of painting to convey characteristic human indecision after a challenge or command and before reaction.
"The picture is divided into two parts. The standing figures on the right form a vertical rectangle; those gathered around the table on the left a horizontal block. The costumes reinforce the contrast. Levi and his subordinates, who are involved in affairs of this world, are dressed in a contemporary mode, while the barefoot Christ and Saint Peter, who summon Levi to another life and world, appear in timeless cloaks. The two groups are also separated by a void, bridged literally and symbolically by Christ's hand. This hand, like Adam's in Michelangelo's Creation, unifies the two parts formally and psychologically. Underlying the shallow stage-like space of the picture is a grid pattern of verticals and horizontals, which knit it together structurally.
"The light has been no less carefully manipulated: the visible window covered with oilskin, very likely to provide diffused light in the painter's studio; the upper light, to illuminate Saint Matthew's face and the seated group; and the light behind Christ and Saint Peter, introduced only with them. It may be that this third source of light is intended as miraculous. Otherwise, why does Saint Peter cast no shadow on the defensive youth facing him?"
Chapter 9
1 He entered a boat, made the crossing, and came into his own town.
And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Courage, child, your sins are forgiven."
At that, some of the scribes 2 said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming."
Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, "Why do you harbor evil thoughts?
Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'?
3 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" --he then said to the paralytic, "Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home."
He rose and went home.
4 When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to human beings.
5 6 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.
10 While he was at table in his house, 7 many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
11 The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher 8 eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
12 He heard this and said, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. 9
13 Go and learn the meaning of the words, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' 10 I did not come to call the righteous but sinners."
Almost the the same account is given in Luke 5:27

Caravaggio St. Matthew and the Angel
destroyed during WW II
Italian Baroque

Inspiration of St. Matthew
Italian Baroque
Form:  Although only a black and white reproduction survives the image entitled St. Matthew and the Angel, we know that originally would have looked very similar in color and value structure to the Inspiration of St. Matthew. Some major differences do exist however.  The point of view is quite different in both as is the costuming and the interaction of the two figures.  In the image on the left, Matthew is bare legged, entwined with the angel in a transparent gauze like gown and his facial expression is rather dumb.  Although the viewer is placed in a vantage point from above, the viewer is still confronted with the bare feet of the saint as they project out into the foreground.  The image on the right is just the opposite in almost every way.
Iconography:  The iconography of this scene concerns itself with an image in which Matthew composes his gospel long after the death and ascension of Jesus.  Matthew is described as having received divine inspiration and guidance for his account from an angel.  Nevertheless, the angel in the left hand image is guiding Matthew's hand in a rather provocative manner.  This manner, coupled with the bare legs and befuddled almost senile expression on the saints face is what ultimately led to this image being rejected by the patrons.  Caravaggio then painted its replacement the Inspiration of St. Matthew.
Context:  It is precisely this kind of irreverence and rebellious "thumbing his nose" at the patron that both earned Caravaggio his notoriety as well as his infamous reputation.
Caravaggisti- a follower of Caravaggio

Caravaggio St. Matthew and the Angel
destroyed during WW II
Italian Baroque

Rembrandt St. Matthew and the Angel 1661
Dutch Baroque
Form:  As in the last comparison only a black and white reproduction survives the image entitled St. Matthew and the Angel, we know that originally would have looked very similar in color and value structure to the the painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt painted his image more than 50 years after Caravaggio painted his but Rembrandt's portrait of the saint follows many of the same schema as Caravaggio.  Both use tenebrism as a way of creating a focus on St. Matthew and to heighten the drama.  In this way and for this reason, Rembrandt, and other artists who copy Caravaggio's style are often referred to as caravaggisti which literally means a follower of Caravaggio.
Iconography:  Rembrandt depicts Matthew in a similar manner to Caravaggio however, in his depiction Matthew is not as aware of the angel as in either one by Caravaggio
Rembrandt also incorporates and element of the genre imagery in his work.  Matthew looks like one of the Jews that he might have known in Amsterdam and Rembrandt also attempts to authenticate the Persian or middle eastern quality of the image by providing Matthew with a turbine.
Context:  Many artists, including Rembrandt, Velázquez, Gentileschi and others took their cue form the works of Caravaggio and we refer to them all as Caravaggistis.


Caravaggio Death of the Virgin 1605-1606
Italian Baroque
This is another one of those paintings that Caravaggio got in trouble for.  This is an apochryphal story concerning the death of Mary.  In Caravaggio's depiction of the dead saint he depicts her in a very real way.  Her feet are dirty, her body and hair are disheveled and her skin is past an white.  Her appearance is so "life like" or really "death like" because Caravaggio used the corpse of a prostitute that the authorities had pulled from the Tiber river in Rome as his model. 


al.le.go.ry n, pl -ries [ME allegorie, fr. L allegoria, fr. Gk allegoria, fr. allegorein to speak figuratively, fr. allos other + -egorein to speak publicly, fr. agora assembly--more at else, agora] (14c) 1: the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence; also: an instance (as in a story or painting) of such expression 2: a symbolic representation: emblem 2 apoc.ry.pha n pl but sing or pl in constr [ML, fr. LL, neut. pl. of apocryphus secret, not canonical, fr. Gk apokryphos obscure, fr. apokryptein to hide away, fr. apo- + kryptein to hide--more at crypt] (14c) 1: writings or statements of dubious authenticity 2 cap a: books included in the Septuagint and Vulgate but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament b: early Christian writings not included in the New Testament
apoc.ry.phal adj (1590) 1: of doubtful authenticity: spurious 2 often cap: of or resembling the Apocrypha syn see fictitious -- adv -- apoc.ry.phal.ness n adj, often cap (1589) 1: idyllically pastoral; esp: idyllically innocent, simple, or untroubled 2 a: of or relating to Arcadia or the Arcadians b: of or relating to Arcadian n (1590) 1 often not cap: a person who lives a simple quiet life 2: a native or inhabitant of Arcadia 3: the dialect of ancient Greek used in Arcadia
According to the Brittanica,
Modern Greek ARKADHÍA, mountainous region of the central Peloponnesus of ancient Greece. The pastoral character of Arcadian life together with its isolation partially explains why it was represented as a paradise in Greek and Roman bucolic poetry and in the literature of the Renaissance. The region is not exactly coextensive with the present-day nomós (department) of Arkadhía, which extends on the east to the Gulf of Argolis. The capital of the nomos is Trípolis.



chiaroscuro n, pl -ros [It, fr. chiaro clear, light + oscuro obscure, dark] (1686) 1: pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color 2 a: the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art b: the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character) 3: a 16th century woodcut technique involving the use of several blocks to print different tones of the same color; also: a print made by this technique 4: the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface 5: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow According to the Brittanica, 
Chiaroscuro (from Italian chiaro, "light"; scuro, "dark"),
technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects.

Some evidence exists that ancient Greek and Roman artists used chiaroscuro effects, but in European painting the technique was first brought to its full potential by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 15th century in such paintings as his "Adoration of the Magi" (1481; Uffizi, Florence). Thereafter, chiaroscuro became a primary technique for many painters, and by the late 17th century the term was routinely used to describe any painting, drawing, or print that depends for its effect on an extensive gradation of light and darkness.
 "chiaroscuro."  and  Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Inc.   November 19, 2002. 
genre n [F, fr. MF, kind, gender--more at gender] (1770) 1: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content 2: kind, sort 3: painting that depicts scenes or events from everyday life usu. realistically n [Gk hedone pleasure; akin to Gk hedys sweet--more at sweet] (1856) 1: the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life 2: a way of life based on or suggesting the principles of hedonism -- n -- adj -- adv
neo.clas.sic or adj (1877): of, relating to, or constituting a revival or adaptation of the classical esp. in literature, music, art, or architecture -- n -- n or adj adj [ME, fr. L pastoralis, fr. pastor herdsman] (15c) 1 a (1): of, relating to, or composed of shepherds or herdsmen (2): devoted to or based on livestock raising b: of or relating to the countryside: not urban c: portraying or expressive of the life of shepherds or country people esp. in an idealized and conventionalized manner <~ poetry> d: pleasingly peaceful and innocent: idyllic 2 a: of or relating to spiritual care or guidance esp. of a congregation b: of or relating to the pastor of a church -- adv -- n ²pastoral n (1584) 1 a: a literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usu. artificial manner and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and esp. court life b: pastoral poetry or drama c: a rural picture or scene d: pastorale 1b 2: crosier 1 3: a letter of a pastor to his charge: as a: a letter addressed by a bishop to his diocese b: a letter of the house of bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church to be read in each parish n [Gk paiderastes, lit., lover of boys, fr. paid- ped- + erastes lover, fr. erasthai to love--more at eros] (ca. 1736): one that practices anal intercourse esp. with a boy -- adj -- n
rib.ald n [ME, fr. MF ribaut, ribauld wanton, rascal, fr. riber to be wanton, of Gmc origin; akin to OHG riban to be wanton, lit., to rub] (13c): a ribald person ²ribald adj (1508) 1: crude, offensive <~ language> 2: characterized by or using coarse indecent humor syn see coarse
ten.e.brism n, often cap [L tenebrae darkness] (1954): a style of painting esp. associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his followers in which most of the figures are engulfed in shadow but some are dramatically illuminated by a concentrated beam of light usu. from an identifiable source -- ten.e.brist n or adj, often cap
according to the Brittanica,
"in the history of Western painting, the use of extreme contrasts of light and dark in figurative compositions to heighten their dramatic effect. (The term is derived from the Latin tenebrae, "darkness.") In tenebrist paintings the figures are often portrayed against a background of intense darkness, but the figures themselves are illuminated by a bright, searching light that sets off their three-dimensional forms by a harsh but exquisitely controlled chiaroscuro . The technique was introduced by the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571?-1610) and was taken up in the early 17th century by painters influenced by him, including the French painter Georges de La Tour, the Dutch painters Gerrit van Honthorst and Hendrik Terbrugghen, and the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán."

trompe l’oeil - (French: "deceive the eye"), in painting, the representation of an object with such verisimilitude as to deceive the viewer concerning the material reality of the object. This idea appealed to the ancient Greeks who were newly emancipated from the conventional stylizations of earlier art. Zeuxis, for example, reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them. The technique was also popular with Roman muralists. Although trompe l’oeil never achieved the status of a major artistic aim, from the early Renaissance on, European painters occasionally fostered illusionism by painting false frames out of which the contents of a still life or portrait appeared to spill, or by creating window-like images suggesting actual openings in the wall or ceiling. (Brittanica)

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