The Influence and Artistic Intent of Caravaggio

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an Italian painter, known to be one of the most influential painters of the Baroque period. Known for his realistic portrayal of the human state, along with the use of dramatic lighting and intense use of tenebrism. While Caravaggio’s dramatic lighting is very iconic, he was most notorious for his naturalistic and raw approach to portraying his subjects. With Caravaggio’s homicidal tendencies aside, this raw and uncensored approach that he took led him to become an infamous painter of 89 pieces during his lifetime.

Evidence can be seen from future painters and even in photography, that Caravaggio is one of, if not the most influential painter to have come out of the Baroque period. Caravaggio did not acquire this status easily and, as a matter of fact, lived a rather tempestuous life. Born in Milan to Fermo Merisi and Lucia Aratori, Caravaggio lived an unfortunate life early on. He was orphaned at a young age, and as a result, ended up as an apprentice to Simone Peterzano, to happened to have been a former apprentice of Titian.

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This eventually led him to become an assistant to various artists in Rome, before setting out on his own.

Caravaggio’s first main commission was a series of three monumental canvases devoted to St. Matthew that he painted for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi. The most notable piece of art in this series is The Calling of St. Matthew. Caravaggio’s naturalistic style really came into its own in this piece.

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Caravaggio painted the world how he knew it, and his pieces reflected that. The subjects in his art were not idealized, such as the figures in High Renaissance art. Neither were they distorted, elongated, or overtly elegant like the figures commonly seen in Mannerism art.

This naturalistic depiction of people was shocking and seen as radical. Specifically, in The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio took a religious scene and turned it into a piece depicting common looking people. Up until this point, people had never seen a sacred subject depicted in the context of contemporary low-life. This piece had elements of genre scenes in it, meaning it looked like a scene from everyday life. However, what is special about this work of art is that it does not easily become mistaken as secular or a simple genre scene. Cleverly, this is because of the gesture that Jesus is giving to Matthew.

The relaxed hand is reminiscent of God’s hand in Michelangelo’s piece The Creation of Adam. Every aspect of this piece is done in such a beautiful manner that it bridges the gap between the highly idealized and religious artwork of the High Renaissance and the common lowlifes of the contemporary period. This execution makes this work of art accessible and appreciated by the common man. Not only was Caravaggio’s naturalistic style becoming apparent in this work, but also so was his dramatic and tenebristic style. Caravaggio establishes a certain amount of intensity and drama as a result of his dark and high-contrast style.

Not only does he establish a certain atmosphere, but this style also includes within it. Through his Caravaggio’s use of tenebrism, Christ’s face becomes illuminates in the dark scene to allow the viewer to see the moment that He calls Matthew. If Caravaggio did not include this dramatic use of lighting, it would lose its sense of divineness. His goal was to make the Christian mysteries accessible to every person. While Caravaggio’s unorthodox approach to sacred stories was generally well received, not all works of his were appreciated during his time.

A notable work of art that was not appreciated by many during his time was “The Death of the Virgin”. Laerzio Alberti commissioned Caravaggio to paint this piece for his family chapel in Sta. Maria della Scale, the newly constructed church of the Discalced Carmelites. He was given a year to finish it, but in the end, it was rejected. Modern scholars as to why the picture was rejected. One reason was that the Virgin was improper. Her legs were exposed, her ankles and belly were swollen, and also, she was studied from the bloated corpse of a prostitute whom Caravaggio had relations with.

This painfully naturalistic approach caused him trouble with ecclesiastical authorities. Other forms of speculation explain that, notably, the Virgin was shown as dead instead of dying, with not transition of going to heaven. This went against Caravaggio’s contract, which required that he include the conventional rendition of Mary’s passage from her death to her Assumption. Various hypotheses are given as an explanation as to why Caravaggio took the approach that he did, but all are merely speculation and nothing has been confirmed. The general assumption an be made that Caravaggio took this approach because it is merely the manner in which he approached all of his pieces. He did not desire to idealize anyone or anything and chose to present all scenes in such a naturalistic manner that it was approachable from all levels of society. Caravaggio’s naturalistic and dramatic style inspired many, and his influence can easily be seen in many future artists’ works. After Caravaggio’s untimely death, many artists came to be considered his “followers” even though they never met or worked alongside the artist.

While some artists imitated Caravaggio for a brief time, others remained committed to Caravaggio’s style for the duration of their lives. These painters, labeled as the Caravaggisti, emulated aspects of Caravaggio’s style and technique. These followers were intrigued by Caravaggio’s gritty realism and intense use of lighting. A notable Caravaggisti would be Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi personally knew Caravaggio, and evidence can be seen in her work that he influenced her to a certain degree. One of her more famous pieces, Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes, has influences of Caravaggio’s style in it.

Most notably is the strong use of tenebrism to create a very dramatic atmosphere to the piece. Moreover, the figures are not idealized and the subjects appear as common lowlifes. Gentileschi was not the only artist to show influences of Caravaggio. Artists such as Rubens and Rembrandt can also see slight influences of Caravaggio’s style in their work. It can be seen that Rubens adopted the religious themes and physicality of figures in his work. Along with that, it can be seen that Rubens also adopted Caravaggio’s tenebristic style to a certain degree.

This can most notably be seen in his piece, The Descent from the Cross. Rubens uses dramatic lighting to focus on Christ to create a striking focal point. Rembrandt uses this technique in a similar manner as well. A notable piece in which influences of Caravaggio can be seen in Rembrandt’s work is in the piece, The Blinding of Samson and The Nightwatch. Both pieces can be seen utilizing forms of tenebrism to create dramatic atmospheres. Not only are these atmospheres dramatic, but Rembrandt also uses the light in a manner in which he creates a strong focal point, similarly to Rubens.

Caravaggio did not only influence the painters that came after him, but also in photography of future centuries. Despite playing a key role in defining the 17th century, Caravaggio was largely forgotten until interest in him renewed in the 20th century when emerging artists were adopting techniques and imitating his style. The greatest reason for this was the popular emergence of the camera. Because of the spontaneity and directness of photographs, people began to realize the greatest of Caravaggio’s art again.

Also, Caravaggio had such a naturalistic approach to his paintings that the realism as a result appealed to many photographers. Along with this, art critic Roberto Longhi brought Caravaggio’s name to the foreground, praising him and saying, “With the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence. ” These two factors revived Caravaggio’s name in the early 1900’s and made people realize his greatness. Also, there has been much speculation with historians that Caravaggio even incorporated early photographic techniques into his paintings.

They say that he illuminated models through a hole in the ceiling and the image was projected on a canvas using a lens and a mirror; an early form of camera obscura. Along with that, Caravaggio supposedly “fixed” the image, using light-sensitive substances for around half an hour, during which he used white lead mixed with chemicals and minerals that were visible in the dark, which he used to paint the images. Also, one of the elements that were used in these mixtures was mercury, which prolonged exposure to it can affect the central nervous system, which can potentially cause irritability.

Historians trace this back to potentially factoring into Caravaggio’s temper. While this is highly improbable to be the cause of Caravaggio’s temper, it can be argued that it could very well have been a direct factor. Regardless, these innovations of Caravaggio show the obvious talent that he had and why he had so much influence of future artists. From what was explained, conclusions can be drawn that Caravaggio was one of the, if not the most influential artist of the Baroque period.

With Caravaggio’s potent combination of naturalism and intense tenebrism, he created a style of gritty realism that appeal to many people and inspired the work of future artists. While Caravaggio’s unorthodox approach to his work was rather shocking, it also inspired just as many. Evidence can be drawn from future painters that Caravaggio’s style inspired many works of art. Even in today’s art, we can see hints of how Caravaggio’s raw and dramatic art has rippled forward through time and continues to influence art today.

Cite this page

The Influence and Artistic Intent of Caravaggio. (2016, Nov 15). Retrieved from

The Influence and Artistic Intent of Caravaggio
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