Skip to content

Caravaggio’s Influence on 17th Century Art

Caravaggio was an artist in the early 17th century that most distinctly captured the Baroque idea of drama. His dramatic paintings, and the techniques he used to produce them, influenced a wide range of artists that followed in the 17th century.

The Conversion of St. Paul is a Caravaggio piece that shows many of Caravaggio’s signature techniques. The chiaroscuro lighting gives this piece immediacy and suspense, with a wide range between the brightest white and the darkest dark (which is jet black). Caravaggio also relied heavily on implied line in facial expression, posture, and gesture, with the figure behind the horse looking down onto Paul and Paul with his hands grasping towards the top of the piece. The lighting highlights on the figures and the horse follow this same cyclical path that guides the eye around the piece. Though the dramatic lighting may not be considered “naturalistic” in that it is an exaggeration of what we typically encounter in reality, the manner in which Caravaggio depicts surfaces like skin, metal, and fabric are naturalistic, and feel accurate to how that kind of lighting would appear. The shiny quality of a horse’s soft, groomed hair is effectively reproduced, as is the metal handle of the sword laying next to Paul. Tenebrism is also used in this painting, the technique of bringing a figure or form into the scene from out of darkness. Here, both the horse and the figure behind the horse come into the scene and are met with a strong, contrasting light.

Diego Velazquez’s Water Carrier of Seville and Georges de la Tour’s Mary Magdalen With the Smoking Flame are two examples of 17th century work that draws from Caravaggio’s unique style. In Water Carrier of Seville, Velazquez shows intense attention to surface quality. The difference in texture between the two ceramic pieces, one dull and one glossy, are depicted in a impressively realistic fashion. Tenebrism is used in this piece as well, and the eyes of the two foreground figures dictate our interpretation/reaction of them. Both the hands and eyes of the figures move us about the piece in the same solemn manner as The Conversion of St. Paul.

In Mary Magdalen With the Smoking Flame, the hands and eyes reference the main focal points of the piece as well. The figure of Mary takes up nearly the entire composition, as did the figures in Velazquez’s piece as well as Caravaggio’s. The sheen of the human skull and fingernails contrasts with the dull skin and fabric. Mary also fades into darkness using tenebrism. The detail realism of this painting is not as strong as the Velezquez or the Caravaggio, with the face and bare shoulder/upper chest being softer and less intricate, but the attention to realistic lighting effects and the chiaroscuro are obvious links to Caravaggio.


The Reformation’s Influence on Northern European Art

 As Protestantism spread over Northern Europe during the 16th century, the subjects and themes that artists began taking on started to stray from the strict religious standards of Rome. Religious paintings in Northern Europe typically had a Protestant spin on traditional Catholic themes, as Martin Luther sought refuge for himself and his church in Germany. But further still, artists in Northern Europe were not limited to depicting religious works of art, and the patronage of the wealthy upper class allowed a large number of secular works to be made as well.

The Four Apostles by Albrecht Durer is a good example of Protestantism’s tangible mark on religious art during the Reformation. A two panel piece, Durer has depicted two apostles per panel, with Peter and John on the left and Mark and Paul on the right. Where in the past Peter may have been given some hierarchical status as the first pope, Luther’s favorite evangelist, John, stands in front of Peter, dominating him both in size and stance (John with a sturdy stance holding an open Bible while Peter stands behind and to the side, almost reading over his shoulder). Opposite, the same domination of foreground figure over background figure is used. Paul stands solid with a staff in one hand and a Bible in the other, his eyes sideways glancing towards the viewer soberly, while Mark looks up inquisitively towards Paul (Paul’s epistles were favored by Protestants). The open Bible that John holds also makes reference to Protestant thought, with “In the beginning was the Word” visible to the viewer. This, along with the inscriptions on the bottom of the panels, refers to Luther’s teachings that faith should be placed more on the teachings (and personal revelations) in the Bible and less on the institutional interpretations of the Bible (the Roman religious society). The most interesting aspect of this piece to me, as it relates to the ideas of the Reformation, is the text he wrote when presenting the piece to the city of Nuremberg. “For a Christian would no more be led to superstition by a picture or effigy than an honest man to commit murder because he carries a weapon by his side. He must indeed be an unthinking man who would worship picture, wood, or stone. A picture therefore brings more good than harm, when it is honourably, artistically, and well made”. This statement is a direct criticism of the Catholic church for its’ actions regarding censorship in art leading up to and during the spread of Protestantism. It also rejects the notion that there are formal or sacred ways to depict religious images, but rather any image produced by an artist with a personal desire to honor or celebrate God or the Bible should be considered respectable. This attitude is exactly the reason why secular and more conceptual interpretations of religious themes were permitted to flourish in Northern Europe.

The Northern tendency during the Renaissance to place more focus on color and detail than the Italians carried out through the 16th century. This, along with more secular images being sought by patrons, led to an increase in the amount of landscape paintings being done in the 16th century. Whether purely landscape with no human subject or narrative (a la Albrecht Altdorfer) or exquisite lanscapes providing the background for naturalistic scenes, everyday activities, or portraits of wealthy patrons, depiction of landscape can be a clear distinction between Northern and Italian art. The vibrant colors and atmospheric qualities of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s landscapes in his Cycle of Months clearly marks it as Northern. Though Return of the Hunters’ title would suggest the piece’s focus is narrative, and there is certainly a group of hunters in the foreground, the expansive landscape could easily be thought as the focal point of the piece. Series of paintings such as Pieter’s Cycle of Months were popular among affluent houses in the Netherlands at the time as interior decoration. Artwork in Northern Europe seemed to serve increasingly more as conversation pieces and jumping off points to intellectual/conceptual discussions. The artist Hieronymus Bosch (himself from the Netherlands as well) was an artist that played with the boundaries of imagination and complex conceptual motives. It’s been suggested by art critics that his paintings, and in particular The Garden of Earthly Delights, seeks to instigate personal interpretations, being intentionally ambiguous rather than using standard definitions of symbolism. Though Garden of Earthly Delights clearly depicts religious themes, the execution is hardly something that would have been condoned by the Inquisition occuring at the same time further South. This piece of art is perhaps the clearest example of what Durer spoke of when presenting his Four Apostles. The personal investigation into one’s faith that Hieronymous Bosch is taking by embarking on such a profoundly conceptually complex and deep piece has to be appreciated as a practice of faith and as a form of theological study. It’s also interesting to note that in a piece so consumed by symbolism, human activity, and bizarre narrative, the landscapes (and their colors) in the 3 panels demand the viewer’s attention as much as anything else, clearly pointing out where this piece comes from.


The School of Athens

The period known as the High Renaissance (occuring in Italy in the early sixteenth century) is not necessarily a distinct style of its own, but rather what art critics and historians view as the peak or most refined period (only lasting about 40 years) within the Renaissance. For this period to be viewed as the most refined, with the Renaissance being characterized by both extremes of naturalism and idealism, the art community suggests that in the High Renaissance there was an unsurpassed balance between both the natural and ideal: integrating Italy’s historical influence in the Classical period (the ideal) with more naturalistic depiction of themes and subjects (as well as a greater command on design elements such as visual balance and unity, which serve to give the works familiarity and comfort, the illusion that they exist in reality).

The piece that exemplifies High Renaissance art the most, to me, is The School of Athens by Raphael. Done in the papal libraries of Rome, Raphael’s painting depicts the epitome of Classical intellectual and philosophical exchange, a lively scene of the most important figures of the sciences engaging in discussion and instruction.

This piece and it’s context is especially amusing to me considering my own context. As an agnostic atheist during the Republican primaries, I’m reminded of the evangelical Christian political agenda that seemingly wishes to ignore what science has taught us in regards to many subjects: human impact on environment, evolution, womens’ reproductive rights, et cetera. That is why it’s funny to me to imagine a time when the Church was excited about human potential, and our potential to observe and deduce how our world works. The idea that God created us in His image, and therefor we have the ability (and almost an obligation) to study it, to uncover the mysteries that God has laid before us. The phrase “God works in mysterious ways” seems to take two totally different meanings to these groups: the humanist Church of the High Renaissance hears a challenge to explain our world, to bring out the glorious intricacies of Him, whereas today the phrase is a stock response to discredit something proven by scientific reason. Imagine a Church now where the interior decorators are commissioned to incorporate the most celebrated scientists and philosophers of today!

Apart from the distinct humanist traits this piece has, the visual design of this work is awe inspring. The impact that inear perspective has on the realism of this piece is obvious, but the subtle shift of value from the foreground group to the background group gives the very realistic impression that there is a skylight out of sight just beyond the foremost arch, and that this painting is not a painting but rather an extension of the building itself. Surely we cannot undermine the role of pure techincal ability, but other strictly design elements, such as the wonderful symmetry and the varying implied gestures and poses of the figures, tell us that Raphael was truly a master.

The Studiolo of Federico Da Montefeltro

The intarsia, or wooden inlay, inside the Studiolo di Federico Da Montefeltro is a grand example of the utilization of linear perspective by Italian Renaissance artists. The driving motivation in tromp-l’oeil pieces is to deceive the viewer into viewing 2D surfaces (such as canvas or, as in this case, an interior wall) as 3d objects or landscapes. To achieve this, the utmost care has been taken in considering accurate planning and execution.

We can identify this intarsia as utilizing the linear perspective if we compare it to The Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter by Perugino. In the Perugino fresco, we can trace the lines in the brick roads to a single vanishing point. In the studiolo, if we extend the diagonals of the opened cabinets, each cabinet’s diagonals intersect  along the same horizontal plane, which would be about eye-level if you were actually in the room. Just as in the Perugino fresco, we can also extend the lines of the stone brick paved floor outside the window to the same common horizon line. This technique is used to ensure objects meant to appear farther away from the viewer are scaled down in an accurate fashion.

Another aspect that gives this intarsia the naturalism required for an effective tromp-l’oeil is the selection of wood for the highlights. If you notice the edge of the cabinet door that is opened the most, the shift from light to dark is in a manner that seems natural of a light from above throwing light onto a three dimensional surface. Also, the intensity of the lightest wood (in contrast to the whole it is the brightest) used for the cabinet edge suggests that the opened edge of the door is the closest object to the viewer. This almost falls under atmospherical perspective technique, in which objects have varying value and clarity as they move closer and farther away in a scene. The same can be noticed, perhaps with more clarity, in the qualities of the expansive landscape scene from outside the “window”. As the scene approaches the horizon, the difference between light and dark diminishes in the city scapes details. This is meant to imitate the natural diffusion of detail when great distances are observed in real life.

Beyond great technical detail and discipline, both in linear perspective drawing/planning and wood craftsmanship, there are some design elements of the intarsia that help the viewer “believe” in the illusion. The decision to incorporate the geometric diamond pattern in the lower panel helps bridge the visual gap between the floor (which is composed of some type of stone/masonry brick and in a geometric pattern itself) and the rest of the wall (which is composed of wood but meant to be viewed as being composed of various materials). When I begin to view this piece my eye gravitates towards the brights, that is, the opened cabinet door edge on the left, the window wall trim on the right, and the brightest spot on the floor. As my eye moves around the piece I follow the horizon line described earlier found by the diagonals, but without the aid of lines my eye naturally moves through it by what appears to be a line of “sheen” or light, where the objects and surfaces on that implied horizon line are brighter than those around it. The lines formed by the trim, shelves, and floor/wall intersect also encourage me on this path.

The last thing I noticed that helped made this piece “believable”  or at least gave it a more unified visual experience, was the design of the artwork and architecture that is mimicked in this illusion. The sculpture on the left is designed in a style typical of the time, being seated in a manner exactly like how the niches of the Orsanmichele were filled with sculpture in Florence (from the stance of the subject to the half circle enclosure). Another example is the design of the pillar and arch loggia that can be viewed from the window.

The Armana Period

 The art that came out of Egypt during the Armana period (1353-1336 BCE) was the art we covered this quarter that intrigued me the most. Apart from transforming Egypt’s religion and his influence in politics, Akhenaten drastically altered the style of royal art during his reign.

The depiction of the human figure in Armana period art is possibily the most obvious element that drifted from the Egyptian norm. If you compare the Colossal Figure of Akhenaten (3-25) with Menkaure and a Queen (3-9) from the Old Kingdom period, you’ll identify the distinctions quite easily. Akhenaten’s form is much more relaxed and stylized, with a sagging stomach and almost no visible muscle. Menkaure on the other hand is very rigid in his stance, his strong arms parallel to his strong torso. In typical royal Egyptian art, the shoulder and overall posture of humans is very proper, but in the Armana period the heads are commonly in front of the shoulders with an elongated neck.

Though I personally prefer the visual style of the Armana period over that of the traditional Egyptian style, the real reason the Armana period intrigued me the most is contemplating why such a drastic change in style took place. The Egyptian civilization existed 1700 years before Akhenaten made his mark, and it existed roughly 1000 years after (let’s remember that the U.S. is 235 years old). In all this time, royal artistic conventions pretty much stayed the same. It’s hard for me to imagine Akhenaten as anything less than a wildly eccentric individual with the entire Egyptian civilization in his hands.  

Propaganda in Roman Art

The sculpture of Commodus as Hercules and the sculpture portrait of Caracalla are both good examples of hyperbolic representations of the subject for the use of propaganda. Commodus carries himself in a very aristocratic, sophisticated manner. His eyes gaze into the distance, deep in thought, and he seems relaxed, yet grounded and stable. In contrast to Caracalla’s short-cropped, neat hair, Commodus’ hairstyle is much like the typical Greek philosopher with curly, bouncy beard and hair, perhaps in an attempt to draw comparisons between the intellectual nature of the philosopher and this ruler. This sculpture is highly ornate, with the headdress, club, fruit, and highly decorative base. The inclusion of so many objects/motifs suggests to me extravagance, and along with the implied sophistication of Commodus himself, a wealthy/high-class extravagance.

Caracalla on the other hand (as I suggested with the hair reference), presents himself with a very angry/aggressive (yet lively) glare. His broad, sharp chin and defined facial lines off the nose and brow and sunken eyes portray a deathly seriousness. Though surely a product of erosion rather than artistic statement, the chip on his nose gives him a sort of scrappy persona. These two different sculptures make me think these particularly men had starkly different personalities! As opposed to Commodus aloof gaze into the distance, Caracalla has a cold, intense stare (perhaps in the midst of a staring contest with the Minotaur). It seems apparent to me that the artists who created these sculptures had rigid instructions on how they were to portray the different rulers.

It seems obvious to me that these pieces of art were used as tools of propaganda. Both pieces achieve the portrayal of character/personality without prior knowledge of the subjects or context. With Commodus, there is symbolism used that is scrambled in meaning without an understanding of the culture/legends, but still these symbols (a club and headdress of a lion/tiger?) do evoke some meaning without that knowledge (strength/courage/power?). Though the implied personalities of these two rulers vary greatly, to me, it is clear these sculptures were intended to influence public opinions.

Ziggurats and Pyramids

The ziggurats of the ancient Near East and the Egyptian pyramids at Giza may have some differences in form and function, however they’re closely related to one another. Ziggurats, a product of the Sumerian civilization, are stepped structures of large size that lead to a platform on top where spiritual/religious rituals took place. These were located within a city-state’s limits and were utilized by a special class of priests/figures. Ziggurats varied by size, from 40′ tall to 100′ tall and some bases as large as 210′ by 150′ (as is the case with the Great Ziggurat of Ur). These structures served visually to suggest the grandiosity of both the deity to whom the ziggurat was dedicated to and also indirectly to the ruler who commissioned their construction. Like the ziggurats, the size and technical aspects of the Great Pyramids suggest a level of importance on the ruler that commissioned it.

The Great Pyramids can be seen as a more refined version of the ziggurat. Maintaining the larger base and smaller top like a ziggurat, the pyramid offers a more scientific/advanced take on architecture and idealism of form. The construction of such a large scale square pyramid (Khufu’s pyramid is 13 acres at the base) required intense mathematical planning and human labor, with individual bricks weighing 2.5 tons. Here, the pyramid is more self-serving, demonstrating the state of a ruler’s civilization in regards to labor force, intellectualism, splendour, and extravagance. Whereas the ziggurat’s function was more utilitarian in its regular use for religious practices, the pyramid served as a center for a specific ruler’s religious funeral practices and tomb. So while both exhibit a metaphysical/godly air about them with their size and reserving for a special class of people, pyramids were more adorned and stylized for displays of personal accomplishments and standing.

Another interesting similarity between ziggurats and pyramids is the idea that the ruling class or high-profile religious figures felt the need to design these structures with such consideration taken to protecting either themselves or protecting a high-class practice or ritual. With the ziggurats, the platform on top served as a place that religious ceremonies could go on out of sight from the lower class civilians. The steps are also isolated and minimal, allowing few access points that needed to be guarded. There has also been speculation that the ziggurats were used by ruling class during flooding as a safe high point. In the pyramids, false tombs were created to serve as decoys for possible looters and enemies. The entrance to the tombs underneath the pyramids were accessible through an unattached temple and long, narrow corridor, with the tomb chamber being sealed off by a 50-ton stone.

Both the ziggurats of the Ancient Near East and the pyramids of Egypt are remarkable feats of human civilization. For their respective times, they embodied their civilization’s advances in architecture and science, as well as their attitudes on the importance of aesthetics. Stripped of their religious/ceremonial purposes, it is easy to see them as a sort of benchmark of the times, and then to see the parallels and evolution from one to another.