Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a world-renowned painter. Actively painting from 1584 to his controversial death in 1610. Merisi was most renowned for his use of the art technique known as chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro refers to the use of bold contrasts of light and dark which affect the whole piece, adding volume or solidarity. Many artists and art historians would agree that Caravaggio had a large influence on the Baroque style of painting. The Baroque style is often characterized by “… great drama, rich, deep colour, and intense light and dark shadows…” (wikipedia.org).
Born in Milan, Italy in the year 1571, Merisi’s father was an “… architect-decorator to the Marchese of Caravaggio” (Caravaggio FDN), and his mother from a family of property owners in Milan. The Merisi family would eventually relocate from Milan to Caravaggio to escape the plague. Following his formative years, Caravaggio would leave Milan for Rome where his illustrious career would begin in an apprenticeship. As an apprentice, Caravaggio’s work became notable due to his excellent use and portrayal of realism.
To further observe the use of the chiaroscuro technique and visually familiarize one’s self with the works of Caravaggio, two of his famous pieces will be used for analysis and comparison. Viewable on the “list of illustrations” page, the first piece to be observed is titled Penitent Magdalene circa 1595.
The Penitent Magdalene as previously stated, was created in the year 1595, just 11 years after Caravaggio began painting in Milan. This painting is a good example of Caravaggio’s use of realism and is an earlier work, which the use of chiaroscuro is less bold. It is also believed that this is Caravaggio’s first religious piece.
The painting shows “… Mary Magdalene, bowed over in penitent sorrow as she leaves behind her dissolute life, its trappings abandoned beside her” (Patton 219). This quote refers to the visible jewelry sprawled with abandon near Mary’s leg, as well as her intricate clothing. Of most notable use of the Chiaroscuro technique in this piece, can be seen in the contrast between Mary and the darkness of the background. This leads the eyes to the lightness of Mary’s blouse and skin, also contrasting with the brown hues of her dress. The color of this painting is instrumental in creating the sullen atmosphere. Color in this work is representative of more than just pigment, it accentuates Caravaggio’s art. While the dress is intricately detailed and patterned, Caravaggio chose the differing tones of brown to add to the drama. We can see in Mary’s posture, clasped hands, and down turned face her apparent sadness. The muted colors, discarded jewelry, use of body language and the surrounding dark space create a sympathetic feeling for the viewer.
The Penitent Magdalene was controversial at the time as it strayed from previous ‘holy’ depictions of Mary Magdalene. Despite its criticisms, many other artists revered the painting. Warwick’s translation of the following quote from Jesuit poet Giuseppe Silos furthers the notion of Caravaggio’s skill and technique.
“We can see the silent remorse hidden in her conscience, and in the depths of her heart she is burned by a secret flame. Certainly, Caravaggio’s colors are so lively as to reveal even her most intimate sentiments. A rare bird is that painter who can so clearly expose in a mere image that which is hidden in the blind darkness of the conscience.” (Warwick, 64)
Following the theme of observing examples of the chiaroscuro technique in the works of Caravaggio, is the second painting titled Death of the Virgin Circa 1606.
Death of the Virgin was created by Caravaggio in 1606, another 11 years from the painting of Penitent Magdalene, 22 years from his beginning. This piece was a commissioned work for a chapel, but when finished was ultimately rejected by the church. In similar fashion with the previous work, the disdain for this piece by some, is noted.
“The same fate (of being refused) met the Death of the Virgin in the church of the Scala, removed because the Virgin had been made to look too much like the swollen corpse of an ordinary dead woman.” (Bellori, 213)
Once more we observe Caravaggio shying away from the contemporary of religious artworks. It is seen however if one looks closely, a tiny thin line at the head of the virgin, her halo. One of the most noticed features of the painting is its size. The scale of the painting measures 369 cm x 245 cm, or about 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Of import in the painting is the emotions upon the faces of the apostles gathered around the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. The faces are mostly solemn and suffer in silence, whereas the direness of the situation is more prevalent in the faces not seen.
The apostle hunched over the Virgin Mary wiping tears from his eyes invokes a more emotional connection that we as humans experience in real life. The positioning of Mary Magdalene with her face buried in her hands appears distraught and overwhelmed; Caravaggio using realism and body language. The wash basin at Mary’s feet allow one to surmise that she will be responsible for washing and preparing the Virgin Mary for burial. This preparation is very emotional and intimate, adding to the eclectic range of Mary Magdalene’s emotions. Once again Caravaggio utilizes the Chiaroscuro technique for this piece. The darkness that the figures appear to be in, is contrasted by the rays of additive light which shines upon the Virgin. The faces, hand gestures, emotions, darkness and lightness, even the red tapestry strewn across the top, add to the drama of the piece; surprise, chiaroscuro!
Viewing these two paintings allow for the observer to experience the technique of chiaroscuro from one of the most brilliant baroque masters. Caravaggio, by proxy of his teacher was a student of the great artist Titian. Caravaggio’s work would go on to inspire other artists of his time such as Rembrandt and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and future artists. Chiaroscuro is also the basis for what we now know recognize as black and white photography. This technique is also visible in drawings or modeling as the shading, which creates the volume for an image to appear three dimensional. Chiaroscuro has been around for decades and will continue to be a staple in art technique, as will the art works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.