Monday, February 13, 2012


Remember what Contraposto means?  Ready for two new Italian-y Art History term?

 Tenebroso (also know as Chiaroscuro)

Carravagio, The Calling of St. Matthew, 1599-1600, oil on canvas

Carravagio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1609-1610, oil on canvas

Chiaroscuro means dark-light, and is the use of shading and highlights to make a figure three-dimensional.  Tenebroso is Chiaroscuro taken to its dramatic extreme.

The great master of tenebroso was Caravaggio, an Italian painter who pushed painting into a whole new realm, away from the style Mannerism which was dominant at the time, and into Baroque.  

Baroque art, Caravaggio's art, is visceral, dramatic, mysterious.  Viewers find it hard to look away.  And the light seems magical, as if it is coming from God.  This was the perfect style for the Catholic church in the 1600s, the time of the Counter-Reformation.  The church wanted to defend itself against the numerous, and often pretty valid criticisms of Martin Luther.  One of Luther's critiques was that the church spent too many resources on expensive painting and art, which was wasteful and against the humble origins of Christianity.  So the Catholic church responded by promoting a style of such power that God's presence in it would be undeniable to its viewers.

(It is interesting to note that while Carravagio's art became a brilliant tool of communication for the Catholic Church, as a person, he was a less than stellar example.  He was notorious for violence and brawling, and in one brawl killed a man, leading to his exile from Rome.  He died at age 39; contemporary studies of the bones thought to be his diagnose lead poisoning.) 

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