Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio lived an intense life, during an intense time in human history. People were persecuted and martyred for their beliefs. Different was a problem; much of the work from the Baroque era is urging people to go back to the tried and true Catholic religion. All Italian artists from this era were guilty of working on religious pieces at one time or another. The Church saw painting as an opportunity to persuade the masses, who often couldn’t read, the lessons of the scripture through pictorial means. This means many painters would paint religious paintings because that is what they could sell, not necessary what they wanted to paint. Many positives came from this, such as a tremendous increase in the amount of artwork being commissioned to artist by the church and allowed certain Baroque painters to be able to reach great fame and prestige in society within Life. Caravaggio is not one of these artists however his major works were religious paintings with moral dilemmas, similar content to all the other artist of the time. With one important difference, the religious paintings from Caravaggio survive today as Caravaggio paintings, not a religious painting. Present day artist still find Caravaggio extremely important, as director Martin Scorsese why; “this is very stark Caravaggio very powerful very strong very determined light and this is the kind of thing we were trying to do” (Graham). A true stand out from the Baroque era. I believe this is because Caravaggio had the vision of a modern day Director of Photography, 300 plus years before the first photo was taken.
Caravaggio stands out to us today amongst the many other terrific Baroque artists because he stood out in his day as well. Caravaggio truly had his style, which he nurtured and perfected over the course of his life. Even in the face of adversity of moving around, Caravaggio stuck to his vision and aesthetic. He often received flack from the church because of his opposition to the idealized forms of the renaissance. He painted Jesus sickly green for his Entombment of Christ painting, and he modeled Mary Magdalene in his Death of a Virgin off of a prostitute model. He had an astonishing skill of interweaving the religious content with his own morality and message. Caravaggio’s realism was criticized by the church, and championed by the perceptive. Time has only created a greater depth in the layers of understanding these works. As any good DP, Caravaggio had a master understanding of human assumptions and emotions as well as how to provoke these pictorially. Below this is shown, with the Entombment of Christ on the left and the Death of the Virgin on the right.
Caravaggio isn’t credited with the invention of dramatic lighting but he should at least get mentioned, and possibly credited. Being a pioneer of film noir photographic style, controlling heavy contrast lighting and shadow before the invention of electricity or film noir. Looking back at a Caravaggio’s works through the lens of film history, feels oddly correct. Clearly there is a major time gap between the two. 300 hundred years after Caravaggio’s death, films began being made, nearly 400 years after his death digital movies began to be made. Even through it is completely impossible, when looking at a Caravaggio, it feels as if this painter knew what was ahead, as if he had been a cinephile for years. Delusions aside, Caravaggio would have had no way of knowing about film or us. But we still study him, and employ his tactics today, which is the part that emphasizes the genius of Caravaggio. The man basically created a how to DP guide to shooting and framing a dramatic scene with every painting he did. Let’s begin Caravaggio’s DP master class with perfect lighting for the scene.
Above are two paintings from Caravaggio; the one on the left is David with the head of Goliath and the one on the right is the Calling of St. Matthew. Both of these paintings are strong examples of Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro technique, which is the play of the light and shadow in a composition, often implying a predominant light source coming in at an angle (Editors). This lighting aesthetic was used with a heavy hand in film noir, and is mimicked in contemporary cinema quite delicately by various directors of photography such as Emmanuel Lubezki. Emmanuel Lubezki tries to use natural lighting constantly throughout his films, often using magic hour to light his scene. Magic hour, or golden hour, is a photographic term to describe the small amount of time of day that the sun is close horizon line but before the sky has gotten dark or too light (Understanding). Shooting at this time creates long, harsh shadows and fanatic colors emitting from the sun that is already set. The look Mr. Lubezki is able to capture comes from an understanding of Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro. As it seems Caravaggio knew about the most dramatic time of day as well, the time photographers, like Emmanuel Lubezki, fondly call magic hour. Many of Caravaggio’s paintings that use Chiaroscuro in the composition that seem to also represent this time of day, the time the light is strong, at an angle and magically touching everything in the scene. This brings us to Caravaggio’s manipulation of light and arrangement of other elements to direct the focus of the viewer.
Above, once again there are two religious paintings from Caravaggio. These two paintings are on two different saints and should work as spotlights for the church into these saints’ lives. On the left we have the Conversion of St. Paul and on the right is the Crucifixion of St. Peter. These two men have very different stories, both deemed important by the church, and both on Caravaggio to express visually. These stories had been depicted before and after Caravaggio, but non-done with such of an intense focus on the subject at hand. First off he puts us in the moment of both stories, not the moment before or after, but rather the most important moment of the story. In the painting of St. Paul we are given many lines that lead us to St. Paul, the horse’s hind legs and lifted front leg both lead us back to the Saint on the ground. The servant’s eye line would lead us back to St. Paul, but most obviously, we are given the divine light casted down the whole composition upon St. Paul. All of these elements seem natural as if this is how it might have looked while retaining the fictional focus on the saint in which these paintings are about. I would ague that the composition of focus is even stronger in the Crucifixion of St. Peter, while also having minor focus on subordinate details. We see the three men hoisting up St. Peter, who is upside down on the cross. How these three men are composed is fascinating, because not only is Caravaggio using their forms to keep the focus on St. Peter but also depicting the “the physicality to crucify a man, the trouble one must go through” as iconic director Martin Scorsese points out in this piece (Graham). This control of focus allowed Caravaggio to explore primary and secondary stories in a signal frame. To achieve this clear focus on subject, pristine staging and blocking have to be done first.
To demonstrate the last pillar of Caravaggio’s Director of Photography master class I have added Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus the left and the Taking of Christ on the right. I have picked these paintings to explore Caravaggio’s commitment to naturalism, not only in his still life and figure elements but also in his staging of these renderings. In the Supper at Emmaus we step into the scene, there is a spot at the table open for the viewer. Caravaggio is staging his light source and secondary figures to draw focus to the main subject, Jesus. There is stark shadow on the wall behind Christ’s, the shadow surrounds the form of Christ as it also casts a halo like shadow on the wall. Everyone in the frame is looking at Christ, as if he is the mist of saying something very important. A lot of emotion and gesture also represent the importance of this scene, and all of these gestures lead us back to
Christ in the middle of the canvas. The final painting I am going to discuses is a personal favorite, the Taking of Christ. A similar odd correctness to the instant mentioned before, because it always looks like a film still to me. I can clearly decipher that it is indeed a painting a not colloid or digital data, regardless, it still feels right out of a camera. The viewer is roughly at eye level with Christ and all the other figures in the painting. The vast majority of the figures and motion conveyed by their gestures are leading the focus to Christ, with the notable exception of the man on the left edge with his hands up in a pleading fashion. This figure helps us get to the secondary details of this scene, most importantly the reaction to Christ being taken. It seems tense, verging on violence. The tight staging implies a mob type scene where no one is ready for Christ to be taken away. This has a liberating juxtaposition with Christ himself, extremely passive amongst the ciaos. Jesus’ hands are folded; his body is relaxed leaning with the pushing of the crowd. In this painting we are given multiple perspectives on the event of Christ being taken, while never losing the vibrant focus on the man himself, Christ. Also it would be an amazing mid-shot in a 70mm ultra widescreen format. Picture it; wouldn’t you go see a Caravaggio film? Martin Scorsese would be at the primer.
AgendaStevePaikin. "The Glory of Caravaggio." YouTube. YouTube, 18 June 2011. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. "Martin Scorsese Interview 2005Broadcast : Andrew Graham-Dixon." Martin Scorsese Interview: Andrew Graham-Dixon. Andrew Graham Dixon, 2005. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Chiaroscuro." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.
"Understanding Golden Hour, Blue Hour and Twilights | PhotoPills." PhotoPills. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.