Annibale Carracci, Venus and Anchises, 1597-1600. From the Farnese Gallery ceiling, Rome
For the full view of the Farnese Gallery ceiling and more details, click here.
Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi) created a powerful style of painting that provided artists with a way
to create dramatic works without mannerist exaggeration. His religious paintings are powerful and
captivating and allow the viewer to identify emotionally with the characters in the painting. But Caravaggio
was not a religious man; he was more the renegade, associating with prostitutes and thieves as often as he
associated with churchmen and aristocrats.
The Calling of St. Matthew, painted c. 1600 in the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi
in Rome, gives a good introduction to Caravaggio’s style. The piece is an oil painting on canvas, but unlike
the Venetian artists, Caravaggio used clear outlines defined by sharp contrasts of light and dark.
Caravaggio’s method of making figures emerge from deep shadow is called tenebrism, and when these
paintings are viewed in their dark chapels, the figures seem to literally pop out of the walls.
In the St. Matthew painting, Jesus and St. Peter are sunk in darkness at far right. All we see of Christ is the
side of his face and his hand raised to call the tax collector Matthew to be one of the apostles. Christ’s
gesture calls to mind the famous gesture on the Sistine ceiling of God giving life to Adam, which Caravaggio
was undoubtedly quoting. Caravaggio often used common people for models, sometimes people who were
recognized by his contemporaries. His figures are shown in an unidealized way; for example, the old man
to the left of St. Matthew squints at the money being counted, while St. Peter, on the right side of the
painting, seems poor and feeble.