3 Tutorials that teach Caravaggio
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Author: Ian McConnell
This lesson will consider the work of Caravaggio and the emulation of his style by artists known as "Caravaggisti," or followers of Caravaggio.
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An overview of Caravaggio and his followers.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Caravaggio.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the style of Caravaggio, focusing in particular on his dramatic use of light, and identify examples of Caravaggio's work and examples of his followers' work.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is tenebrism-- a style or method of painting characterized by large areas of dark colors and a ray of light. And Caravaggisti-- artists who painted in the style of the painter Caravaggio.

Big idea for today is that Caravaggio's style is most notable for his use of chiaroscuro and dramatic use of lighting, called tenebrism. We'll be looking at the time period from 1600 to 1640. And Caravaggio originates from Milan in modern day Italy.

Well, put aside your notions of artists as pacifists, daydreamers, and sitting around sketching nudes all day. If the stories are true, Caravaggio was a veritable rock star and bad boy of the artistic world. He was supposedly known as much for his temper, bad mood, and disdain for the classical artists that preceded him, as he was for his artistic genius. Supposedly, he was prone to fight, trash his apartment, killed a man-- no joke-- and had a death warrant issued for him by the Pope, of all people. Now, his influence and talent, though, was unquestionable, particularly with his use of light and perspective to enhance the drama of his work, creating a theatrical quality to his work that was entirely unique at the time.

But Caravaggio's career was short lived and saw its greatest years from 1600 until his somewhat mysterious death in 1610 at the age of 38. Now, he was an intense figure that burned out quickly, but was highly influential to a number of artists that came after him, and largely forgotten by the rest until hundreds of years later.

Now, this first image by Caravaggio if of this Calling of Saint Matthew. And it's a great example of Caravaggio's unique style. Caravaggio was known for his incorporation of the setting in which his paintings were located. It's actually the room of an Italian inn from the time of Caravaggio.

Now, Christ is the figure on the far right, almost hidden in the shadows, pointing at the figure of Levi, who became Matthew, the tax collector, who points to himself in seeming disbelief. Christ's hand and gesture is reminiscent of Michelangelo's depiction of Adam's hand and gesture in his ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel.

Also, notice how the dress is modern for its time. And it may not seem that controversial, but consider a religious scene painted today with characters dressed in clothes that are modern today. The use of chiaroscuro is clearly evident by Caravaggio's innovation of using a single source of light to illuminate Levi and create a theatrical or stage-like quality to his art is one of his most notable qualities.

And this is called tenebrism. And it's a technique employed by the followers of Caravaggio, called Caravaggisti, some of which we'll see in just a moment.

Now, Caravaggio has two paintings attributed him concerning the conversion of Saint Paul. The first seen here is an earlier work, at least by a year. It is often considered to be more Mannerist than Baroque, a more Mannerist than Baroque interpretation of the story. Saint Paul, the one who looks like he's screaming, "Mice!" is just one of a jumble of characters in this particular scene.

It's difficult to tell it first, but the figure of Christ is being held by an angel near the top right. And it's creating a vision that overwhelms the figure of Saint Paul. That's why he's covering his eyes.

Now, the next image is considered a much more characteristic example of Caravaggio's work, called the Conversion of Saint Paul or the Conversion on the Way to Damascus. It depicts the figure of Saint Paul lying on his back, apparently having fallen off his horse in the midst of a vision from Christ. Now, Caravaggio again uses a single source of light as the means of eliminating the scene. And Saint Paul is dressed in clothing that would have been familiar to people at the time. Now Caravaggio utilizes a rather low point of perspective, taking into account the position of the viewer, making the viewer feel as if they're part of the scene, standing at the head of Saint Paul.

Now, Caravaggio's Entombment, shown here, again, makes use of a rather low horizon, pulling the viewer in, and forcing the action to take place in the foreground. And notice how the subjects are aged, worn looking, rough, dirty looking, and in some cases, rather homely. This is another hallmark of Caravaggio.

There are no idealizations of his subjects. They agonize and struggle with the weight of the body of Christ, which is interestingly devoid of any signs of trauma, about to be set on the stone slab in front of the viewer. Caravaggio uses emotion, lighting, and the theatrical depiction of his subjects to generate the emotional connection, rather than the gruesome depiction of a tortured body.

One of Caravaggio's followers Artemisia Gentileschi, shown here-- oh, that's not her, but that'd be a little self-incriminating; that's her picture of her painting-- is an important artist to discuss, not just because of her talent, but because of her gender. Now, in a male-dominated world, Gentileschi's talent stands out as some of the best from this period of time. And she was the first female painter to become a member of Florence's Academy of Fine Arts.

Her painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes is typical of her desire to paint subjects with strong female characters. It's a particularly graphic and gruesome rendition of the biblical story. Judith was a beautiful Jewish widow who seduced the Babylonian general Holofernes of the invading Babylonian army and beheaded him while he was drunk, taking his head back to her people as a means of rallying the Hebrews to victory.

Now the influence of Caravaggio is undeniable, particularly in the use of a low horizon pushing the action to the foreground and the use of a single light source to illuminate the scene. This is inspired, no doubt, by the treatment of the subject matter by Caravaggio himself in his painting from 1599.

Now, Georges de la Tour was a French Baroque painter who showed influence from Caravaggio, particularly in his application of chiaroscuro and use of a single-light source. However, his departure comes from the fact that we can actually see the source of light. This changes the overall mood of the painting from the theatrical, like we see with Caravaggio, to something intimate and private that we're looking in on.

In this example called Magdalen With the Smoking Flame, the viewers stands in the shadows and watches as a single candle illuminates the contemplative young Mary Magdalene. Now she holds a skull, perhaps an example of vanitas often associated with still life works in Flanders, which are works that de la Tour would have been familiar with. Whether it's depicting a contemplative Mary before her repentance, and acceptance of Christ, or following His crucifixion, I can't really say. However, it's a moving and touching scene that utilizes Caravaggio's tenebrism to emphasize self-reflection, rather than overt emotion.

So that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives again to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the style of Caravaggio, focusing in particular on his dramatic use of light? And identify examples of Caravaggio's work and examples of his followers' work?

And once again, the big idea for today is that Caravaggio's style is most notable for his use of chiaroscuro and dramatic use of lighting, called tenebrism. And that's it. Thank you very much for joining me today. See you next time.

Notes on "Caravaggio"

Key Terms


A style or method of painting characterized by large areas of dark colors and a ray of light.


Artists who painted in the style of the painter Caravaggio.


Image of Caravaggio Public Domain