Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio or commonly known just as Caravaggio was a painter whose paintings are known more for the shadows than for their highlights, Caravaggio was the master of light and shadow, blending the two contrasting elements to create paintings where the natural elements were as equally important subjects as the people in it.
Caravaggio made around 80 paintings in multiple genres ranging from mythological painting to religious scenes. To show how he mastered the interaction of light and shadow on canvas, we chose 10 paintings by Caravaggio with a brief description of the painting.
Here is the list of the ten paintings that will be discussed in this article. All these paintings have been chosen on the basis of their unique composition. Let’s see what story these paintings say.
- Calling of St Matthew
- David with the head of Goliath
Calling of St Matthew
Calling of St Matthew is arguably the most famous painting by Caravaggio. The painting depicts a scene with surprised men as they see Jesus Christ appear before them, asking for Matthew to follow him. While most of the attendees of this miracle are shocked, two people on the other end are still busy in the paperwork.
The painting is made on a huge canvas, 10 x 11 feet and it hangs in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, opposite to The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, both made by Caravaggio. What makes this painting so unique is not about the magnificent portrayal of the rather short scene (of Jesus calling Matthew, Gospel of Matthew, Matthew 9:9), but it is how the painting is painted.
Look at how the golden sunlight touches and lights the faces of the attendees, showering St Matthew’s face and his surprised state. How Jesus is barely visible, half lost in the shadows adding to the dramatic effect of the scene. Caravaggio’s understanding of light and its behavior enabled him to create such a brilliant and dramatic effect on canvas.
Another very famous work by Caravaggio is not heavily relying on chiaroscuro or the idiosyncratic shadow and light which Caravaggio preferred. Two versions of this painting exist, one is with a private collector while the other is in Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
While the painting is called Medusa commonly, the actual name is The Head of Medusa. Medusa is a monster from Greek Mythology, one of the three Gorgon sisters and the only one in the three who wasn’t immortal. And hence the painting depicts the slain head of Medusa, slain by Perseus.
The face of Medusa in this painting was modeled after Caravaggio’s own face. This might not seem like a big deal but Caravaggio had a taste for theatrics. Medusa had the power to turn anyone into stone by looking into their eyes. Perseus killed her by using a mirrored shield. That’s how Caravaggio painted her as well.
Since he modeled himself for her face, he had to create the painting by looking at a mirror. The painting was created in 1597, so this could be considered as one of his early works.
Narcissus is yet another painting by Caravaggio that shows his mastery in not only light and shadows and their interaction, but also how light and shadow interact with different elements. As with most of Caravaggio’s painting, this is also based on a mythological story.
The boy seen in this painting is looking at his own reflection in a puddle of water. The narcissistic persona of him takes hold of him, making him stare and gawk at the beauty of his self. Notice how everything else is dark, in the shadows. There is nothing else for the boy in the world other than his own reflection, a malignant form of self-love.
Cardsharps is one of Caravaggio’s earliest paintings, completed in 1594. This painting was also a major milestone in his career. Cardinal Francesco Del Monte, a notable collector bought this painting and this allowed Caravaggio to become an independent artist rather than working for someone else.
The painting is very different from the Caravaggistic paintings that we have seen. The stark contrast of dark shadow and bright light is absent. This is more about the scene rather than the light and composition.
The painting shops two card players. One is dressed in black, expensive clothes while the other is the cardsharp. The third person (who is older than the two players) seems to be aiding the cardsharp, telling him which card to pull. The cardsharp also has a knife hidden which shows that he can use force if his trickery fails.
David with the head of Goliath
Now this one is an interesting painting. Based on the mythology of David and Goliath in which David, the shepherd killed the giant Goliath. But there is something more to this painting than just mythology. Here, both David and Goliath are the same people; Caravaggio.
Both David and Goliath are versions of the artist’s face. David is younger, innocent one while Goliath has the face of Caravaggio’s older self. We can also see from the expression of David that he’s not celebrating killing Goliath. His face says that he laments doing such a thing, but it was necessary. What does this all mean?
While we cannot for sure say what he really meant, but what we think it meant was the corruption of the mind as one reaches adulthood. A child has no intention to commit sins but as the child grows, sinful intentions take hold of him. This painting shows innocence killing viciousness. The blade that David is carrying has an inscription on it which says H-AS OS. This could be the Latin phrase humilitas occidit superbiam which means “humility kills pride”.
Caravaggio was truly a master of light. His understanding of not just human anatomy but how light would interact with different parts of the body. His paintings have the power to lock someone’s gaze onto them and make them stand and wonder, “how real and beautiful the scene looks”.
It was his artistic magnificence that he could take simple events and create them into this beautiful scenes that would adorn and add to the beauty of even the most beautifully constructed churches and castles.