Caravaggio – how did he do it?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio simply known as Caravaggio was a bit of a lad and rascal who painted in Rome, Naples and Sicily in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.


If you’ve heard the name, you’ll know the paintings or at least his style: emotional, dramatic and heavy with shadow and exquisite lighting.

There’s an interesting exhibition on now at the London National Gallery: ‘Beyond Caravaggio’. Here we have a few examples of his brilliance and many samples of paintings from those who chose to follow his example. Some good but most mediocre. Caravaggio’s works stand out far and above the crowd.

So how did he do it?

Look at his 1602 ‘The Taking of Christ‘.


What are first things you notice? Probably the scene itself and the style and form in terms of drama and lighting.

Taking the scene: Judas kissing Jesus, betraying him to the Roman soldiers. j-jA dramatic episode in the Bible now vividly brought to life by Caravaggio’s depiction of intense movement snapped in time, flowing robes contrasted with steel armour, twisted bodies, flailing arms, clasping hands, strained necks and eyes staring, closed, defeated sadness, aggression and total involvement in the action. So far so good.

Now look at the lighting. We know that Jesus was betrayed and arrested at night in Gethsemane. So, Caravaggio’s scene is set at night, there’s no background lighting. The blackness is intense. There’s no other scenery or settings. It brings the picture forward to us, spilling into your view. Now look closely at the source of lighting on the figures. Where is it coming from? Certainly, not just the self-portrait of Caravaggio’s lamp. car-portLook at all the faces and you can see that the illumination seems to be coming from different directions. Just imagine for a moment that you are one source of light and that is a Caravaggio technique of bringing you into the action, making you a part of it. Are you with the soldiers? Jesus? Judas or a by-stander as Caravaggio? Your call.

Look now again at his composition and form. We only see half the figures, from their waist upwards. Their legs are beyond our view. They are not set back in the picture, they are to the fore, there’s nothing between us and them. Caravaggio with his open form technique has spilled the action out from the canvas reinforcing his intention of involving us by only giving us half of the figures’ heights toppling from the canvas to overwhelm us.

It’s quite amazing how vividly Caravaggio’s works still speak to us today even with all our Post-Modernist complexities and confusions. It’s as though we wish to see in his works a numanistic reassurance during our own unsettled times.