Baroque Obsession: What Was So Innovative About Caravaggio?

Caravaggio, famous for his paintings with high contrast between light and shadow, was a powerhouse of Baroque art. But what was innovative about his technique?

Jul 5, 2024By Elizabeth Casement, MA Art History (in progress), BA Psychology

baroque obsession caravaggio


Born in Milan in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a profound impact on artists of his day, as well as many who came after him. A prosperous career was not easy to come by among the throng of competing artists in Italy in the 16th century, but Caravaggio set himself apart by breaking with tradition in both method and style. In a short life of less than 40 years, his influence became widespread in Europe.


A Troubled Beginning Leads to Unlikely Success 

Self-Portrait as Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1593. Source: Borghese Gallery, Rome


Caravaggio found success as an artist despite a childhood filled with instability and tragedy. At age six, he lost several family members to the bubonic plague, including his father. The death of a father in Baroque times was particularly impactful, as the father-son relationship was the primary means by which young men were either trained for their future careers or introduced to masters with whom they might apprentice. Sadly, by age eleven, his mother succumbed to the plague, as well, leaving Caravaggio an orphan.


Without a father to teach him a trade or a mother to ensure his safety and well-being, the young Caravaggio relocated to Rome, where he found work as an artist’s assistant. It seems, though, that he never took well to authority, a theme that would follow him throughout his life, both professionally and personally.


Records show that he was not employed in any particular workshop for very long, but moved from one to another, never staying anywhere for a meaningful amount of time. Throughout his brief stints under more senior artists, Caravaggio was developing his own style and gaining recognition from the powerful elite of Roman society, including members of the clergy and prominent families. Around 1595, when he was only 24 years old, he began selling his work through an art dealer and became a sensation.

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Technique & Execution

The Taking of Christ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1602. Source: The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin


Caravaggio’s action-packed canvases stood out among a sea of politely posed, static images of the Madonna and Child. Although his work often drew upon the same biblical narratives as other artists, he presented these themes in novel ways and using nontraditional studio practices. While most of his contemporaries were intent on sketching their compositions and later painstakingly executing them in their workshops, Caravaggio painted quickly from live models.


While there are accounts, especially later in his career, of Caravaggio taking years to complete a painting, he often finished his works in a matter of weeks or months, allowing him to churn out a much higher quantity of pieces than his competitors.


He also arranged his models so that his compositions seemed full of movement, sometimes appearing to have more in common with modern photographs than with Baroque oil paintings. Rather than painting scenes from a distant vantage point, his subjects filled his canvases and were usually life-sized, adding to the feeling that his viewers were witnessing a scene not only first-hand but intimately close to the action.


Looking at The Taking of Christ, above, one can almost hear the chaos of the screaming bystanders and the metallic clank of the soldiers’ weaponry and armor. Caravaggio achieved this effect partly due to his characteristic emphasis on chiaroscuro.


What Is Chiaroscuro & Did Caravaggio Invent It?

Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1604. Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City


Literally translated, chiaroscuro means “light-dark” and is used to describe the pointed distinction between parts of a painting that are subjected to a light source and those that are in the shadows. In the decades leading up to Caravaggio’s career, paintings were often lacking the sharp contrast seen in his work and objects flowed more smoothly into one another.


Although Carvaggio is one of the artists most known for his use of chiaroscuro, he did not invent it. The technique dates back to ancient Greece and was popularized a century before his time by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. However, Caravaggio took the method to new levels, bathing certain figures or body parts in bright, piercing light and obscuring the rest of an image in darkness. His masterful use of chiaroscuro directed the viewer’s eye exactly where he wanted it to land.


Irreverent Heretic or Groundbreaking Genius?

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1607. Source: Palacio Real de Madrid


But it wasn’t just Caravaggio’s dramatically lit subjects with dark, shadowy backgrounds that caught the attention of patrons and critics alike. It was also his incredibly lifelike portrayals of revered figures such as Jesus, the twelve apostles, and the Virgin Mary.


In 16th century Italy, naturalism was seen as the highest benchmark of a skilled painter. Consequently, geometry, perspective, and human anatomy were considered essential training subjects for aspiring artists, with many even dissecting cadavers to achieve masterful accuracy in their representation of anatomical structures. Paintings whose subjects closely resembled nature were seen as the most successful and were typically the most valuable.


However, in Caravaggio’s day, there were certain themes that were expected to be treated with an element of idealization in order to convey respect, and many of the subjects of Caravaggio’s paintings fell within this category. His audience was accustomed to seeing religious figures in a way that highlighted their divinity and holiness with throngs of angels, glowing halos, clouds, and heavenly beams of light.


Caravaggio was intent on displaying his subjects’ humanity instead, often including their physical flaws, realistic injuries, and anguished expressions. This artistic choice made his work moving and memorable, but it also sometimes met with criticism from clergy members and religious patrons.


Stylistic Choices & Controversy

The Death of the Virgin by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-1606. Source: Louvre Museum, Paris


Caravaggio’s emphasis on the humanity of his subjects can be seen clearly in several of his paintings, some of which were considered quite controversial. Images depicting the death of Mary at the time followed a rather standard formula: Mary is propped up in a bed, alive but nearing the end of her life, with hands neatly folded on her chest. In Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, however, Mary is splayed out on a flat surface with the pallor of death, swollen ankles, and no sign of her status as the mother of Christ except for a thin halo that could be missed without careful attention. Her hair is disheveled, and her bare feet are exposed, which was unthinkably irreverent at the time.


Death of the Virgin was commissioned by Laerzio Cherubini, a respected lawyer in Rome, in 1601 for the church of Santa Maria della Scala. Upon its presentation, it was rejected by the clergy for the artist’s stylistic choices in his depiction of Mary, but also amid swirling rumors that the model was his own mistress.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601-1602. Source: Sanssouci Palace and Gardens, Berlin


Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, painted around the same time period, is similar to Death of the Virgin in its unconventional treatment of sacred biblical figures. In the Bible, Christ invites the apostle Thomas to feel the wounds in his hands and side resulting from Christ’s crucifixion. Thomas responds with a proclamation of belief, though there is no mention of him actually probing Christ’s lacerations.


Interestingly, Caravaggio took some artistic liberty in his depiction of this story. His painting shows Thomas peering closely at the wound in amazement with his finger partially inside of it, while Christ looks on with compassion. Caravaggio leaves nothing to the imagination, with the inclusion of a gash which appears eerily three-dimensional and Thomas’ dirty fingernails. These were the type of details that helped make Caravaggio a household name during the Baroque period but which also sometimes shocked a conservative and primarily Roman Catholic audience.


The Caravaggisti: Rubens, Ribera, Gentileschi & Beyond

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1620. Source: Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Caravaggio amassed a sizable following, which is shocking considering he never established an official workshop. Workshops were integral components of the art world during the Baroque period, which offered young, aspiring artists the opportunity to learn from masters. The master artists benefited from having multiple assistants who could help with the more tedious and less technical aspects of commissions, allowing for a greater output.


As Caravaggio himself had once done, these assistants would eventually strike out on their own, often producing works which bore a strong resemblance to the style of their masters. The transmission of Caravaggio’s style without a workshop of younger artists to disseminate it took on a life of its own as it began to be mimicked throughout his native country of Italy, as well as across Europe.


His followers, known as “Caravaggisti,” ranged from those inspired by his style to artists who outright copied some of his specific works of art. Some of the best known artists inspired by his style include Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, and Artemesia Gentileschi, whose Judith Beheading Holofernes is perhaps the most famous version of the paintings which depict this biblical narrative.


Caravaggio’s Legacy

David with the Head of Goliath by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1601. Source: Kunstihistoriches Museum, Vienna


Caravaggio’s personal life could generally be categorized as chaotic and unstable. Much like his inability to remain in one master’s workshop, his romantic relationships were numerous, and he never married. He was known for openly brandishing illegal weapons, entertaining courtesans, and instigating and participating in brawls, one of which resulted in the grisly murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. The artist’s life came to an untimely end at the age of 38, though the exact cause of Caravaggio’s death has been a source of much speculation, which continues to the present day.


Despite a shortened career, Caravaggio had already set into motion the adoption of a style of painting which would change the course of art history not only for Baroque Italy but into the 20th century. His innovative methods and techniques resulted in paintings that seemed to unfold before viewers’ eyes as they looked on from just outside the canvas and which portrayed familiar subjects with heightened realism. As Roberto Longhi stated, “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different.”

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By Elizabeth CasementMA Art History (in progress), BA PsychologyLiz is currently pursuing her MA in Art History at UAB in Birmingham, Alabama after a 20-year hiatus from school. Her primary focus is European painting from 1600-1800 but she will read or watch anything related to art history regardless of geographic region or period. She enjoys a good competitive round of Settlers of Catan, a fresh jigsaw puzzle, and traveling to see her favorite art around the world with her husband and four children.