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Caravaggio’s Monumental Roman Period 1599-1606

February 14, 2011



Incredulity of St. Thomas

Caravaggio 1602-1603.

Sanssouci of Potsdam, Germany.

Caravaggio’s palette began to minimize during his Monumental period.  He started to take more commissions for religious paintings at this time, and appears to have never looked back on his colorful, mythological, still life, or genre past.  In Incredulity of St. Thomas, it is evident that his bright background days are over.

Here we are presented with just the essential characters for Christ’s revelation to the doubtful Thomas.  Caravaggio pressed three quarters of the figures up to the picture plane.  Thomas’s elbow juts out into our space.  We, too, are peering into the Resurrected Christ’s open wounds.

Caravaggio’s signature tenebrism makes an appearance in this scene.  The chiaroscuro is much starker than in his earlier works, but still naturalistic.  Although the figures are in an anonymous, dark space, they convincingly inhabit it.

Being from the North of Italy, Caravaggio was exposed to many prints of this scene.  However, it is argued that this depiction of Doubting Thomas finally believing in the Resurrected Christ violates the established iconography and decorum of the scene. True, Caravaggio painted a very classical Jesus, but never before was Thomas shown inserting his finger into Christ’s wound.



The Taking of Christ

Caravaggio 1602.

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

In Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ, a starker chiaroscuro works in favor of his lack of mastery (as of this point) of representing multiple figures.  The patches of dark conceal what Caravaggio would have otherwise had to figure out how to paint.  This creates a more economical painting in that Caravaggio was able to cover more ground quickly while still representing the subject matter thoroughly.

Tenebrism is appropriate here because this is a night scene.  It is argued that Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting discredits his naturalistic figures and subjects.  However, the lighting of this particular scene is convincing.  It appears to be lit by a lantern behind the head of a guard.

As if there is not enough going on in this scene, Caravaggio has cropped it, omitting action from our view.  This suggests that there is more going on that we can see, outside the picture plane.  The dark shadows that conceal much of the figures in the background is also a device for us to use our imagination.  The bright light only highlights what we need to see in order to comprehend this scene, but there is more than meets the eye.

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