Caravaggio, 1601-02. Incredulity of St. Thomas
Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise Caravaggio, was active between 1592 and 1610. In his own lifetime, he was renowned as a sensitive, capricious and provocative individual. His temperament extended from his personal life into his work as an artist.
His work made strong use of extreme chiaroscuro, or tenebrism, together with physical observation to portray dramatic scenes, quite often violent, heavy in psychological realism.
Innovative in style, he both challenged and influenced Baroque art.
It is widely believed that Caravaggio used some form of optics to produce his images, possibly a lens, possibly a camera obscura – certainly these technologies existed when Caravaggio was active.
But did the use of this technology, still formative at the time, lead to some inaccuracies, or errors in Caravaggio’s work?
Take for example, the Incredulity of St. Thomas (also Doubting Thomas, 1601-02) in which Christ offers his wounds to Thomas as proof of his suffering, death and resurrection. Thomas, seeking confirmation of these events, needing reassurance that the person standing before him is indeed Jesus, reaches out to touch the wounds. But study the painting closely.
Thomas’ gaze does not fall where his hand touches Christ’s flesh.
This shift in perspective is not limited to this single painting.
Caravaggio, 1601-02. Supper at Emmaus
Taking Supper at Emmaus (1601-02) as a further example, St. Peter’s right hand, although being furthest from us, is visibly larger than the left which is closer.
Hockney suggests that is ‘maybe a consequence of movements of lens and canvas when refocusing because of depth-of-field problems’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 120).
Hockney goes on to suggest how Caravaggio might have used optics: ‘on many of his canvases, this one included, there are a number of incised lines made with the wrong end of the brush in wet undercoat. These lines do not follow the forms precisely, and they do not show enough to be compositional drawings: only the key elements – the head, the arms – are marked. I believe that Caravaggio used this technique simply to record the position of his models so they could take a break. They could then resume their positions, and Caravaggio could project the image and adjust their pose until they fitted the incised lines’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 123).
‘He would not, of course, have needed all his models there at the same time. The complete tableau would need only to be set up once – to mark out the overall composition. After that, the models could come back one by one, as he worked on different figures’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 123).
Caravaggio, 1594. Card Sharps
The Card Sharps (1594) is an excellent example of this. Light would be set up to illuminate only one subject at a time, the lens to focus on only one subject. Each element of a painting would then be presented to the lens in turn. The canvas would be moved to allow the relevant section to be worked on, coinciding with where the optically projected image is falling. For example, the canvas would be moved to the right to allow the projection to fall on the left-hand side of the canvas to allow the model on the left to be painted. This is referred to as compositing.
Do either of the two card sharps gaze convincingly at the cards held by their mark? Or do they more convincingly look past the hand of cards he holds?
Caravaggio, 1599-1600. Martyrdom of St. Matthew
The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) provides a further example of altered perspective. Notice how disproportionate the foot of St. Matthew’s executioner (centre) appears relative to his body.
Did Caravaggio sacrifice true representation of perspective in order to achieve the realistic illusion he so avidly sought? Are the inaccuracies present in some of Caravaggio’s works purely artefacts arising from the use of optics? We may never know.
Hockney puts forward a compelling argument and summarises succinctly: ‘Caravaggio’s models are not always looking where you would expect – but the intended object of their gaze would not have been there!’ (Hockney, 2001, p.123).
So, how do I relate this to my practice?
Analysing Caravaggio’s work has been a valuable exercise in looking, in paying attention to detail, and in spatial awareness in relation to a three-dimensional scene being represented in a two-dimensional medium. These are important aspects to consider during the creative process. I think, in terms of designing an image, quite often it is easy to look, but not always so easy to see.
Caravaggio: Man & Mystery (2015) YouTube Video, added by Steely_Blues_Man [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_s6gj2KB7s (Accessed: Thursday 07 September 2017)
Hockney, D. (2001). ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters’. London, Thames & Hudson Limited