Carravaggio's Tenebrism

Imagine a time before cinema, before photography. It’s 1600, and you are in the Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi de Francesi in Rome. Three paintings of Caravaggio hang there. One is “The Calling of Saint Matthew” It depicts the conversion of Matthew the tax collector amidst the wafting sunlight of a late afternoon. The lighting is stark and dramatic as crystal clear bodies emerge from thick, inky shadows. And gone is the ideal beauty found in paintings of the high renaissance, of Leonardo, of Raphael. Matthew, the other tax collectors, and Jesus himself all look like the ordinary people of the streets of Rome. It would’ve been a shocking sight, revolutionary in the transposition of the divine into the mundane and immediate.

In the language of art, Caravaggio’s play of light is called tenebrism, taken from the Italian word, tenebroso, which means dark, gloomy, and even mysterious. If Caravaggio had been a film director today, his visual style might have rivaled Martin Scorcese’s use of darkness to heighten a scene’s impact. What is for sure is Carvaggio’s and Baroque’s tenebrism has long been part of the West’s visual education and has no doubt influenced cinema.

Caravaggio was known for an intense realism and vividness, created in part by the sharp contrast between light and shadow and astonishing naturalism. The effect is one of a stage drama with a cast of real people against a spotlight. These people seem weighty, so close to the audience,as if one could reach out and touch them.

Such is the emphasis on a commonplace scene that the spiritual moment of conversion has only subtle hints. It isn’t a grand supernatural event. There are hardly any clues of heavenly light and divine revelation. Obscured by Saint Peter, Jesus is barely seen and noticeable. His halo is but a suggestion, a faint line. Matthew does not react with a willingness borne out of repentance and adoration. Like us, he can’t believe it. He seems to say, “Who? Me?”