Caravaggists in Munich

Light before darkness

At the turn of the 17th century, no painter was considered as modern as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. More than anything else, his use of light and shadow was both radical and new. He became a pioneering model for many young painters in Europe. The most important of them included Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Dirck van Baburen from Utrecht. These great figures are the focus of a unique exhibition being held at the Alte Pinakothek (art gallery). Here, curator Bernd Ebert explains just what makes them so special.

Mr. Ebert, in today's times, every picture in the world is just a mouse click away. In the 17th century, it was much trickier to enjoy contemporary art. How did Utrecht's Caravaggists first come into contact with Caravaggio?

After completing their training, young painters from all over Europe would travel to Rome. Those who could afford it, in any case. For Honthorst, ter Brugghen and Baburen, this was certainly true. Once there, they would study the works of antiquity, paintings from the Renaissance and the most modern painter of their time, Caravaggio.

What made him so modern?

Above everything else, it was his naturalism that made him so appealing. He apparently wanted to show the world and people as they were. This was considered unusual for an Italian painter given that, at that time, artists were expected to choose a motif to be idealised for its beauty. Caravaggio broke with that mantra. He often staged his pictures using ordinary people from the street. The male and female saints he depicted thus had the appearance of people who you would otherwise have encountered in everyday Roman life.

„Caravaggio had not invented the "chiaroscuro" technique in painting, but did take it a step further by transforming the shadows and dark background into darkness. This generated incredibly strong contrasts.“
Bernd Ebert

He would bring these models in his studio?

Exactly. And not just him. Caravaggists like Orazio Gentileschi or Jusepe de Ribera did the same. There is a character that appears repeatedly in their works. Obviously a worker from Rome, who posed repeatedly as a model. Caravaggio also experienced certain problems with this method. For example, there is an altarpiece by him depicting the dead Virgin Mary, which today hangs in the Louvre Caravaggio painted it however for the Santa Maria della Scala church in the Italian city of Trastevere. They rejected the picture on the grounds that the model for Maria was a well-known prostitute.

Back to the disciples from Utrecht. Part of their training involved copying and learning from great painters.

By copying, they learned how their great role models composed their works. That formed the basis upon which they developed their own ideas. One of the earliest images seen by Honthorst in Rome was Caravaggio's "The Crucifixion of Peter" in the Santa Maria del Popolo church. He copied the picture and created his own version of the motif. Although he adopted Caravaggio's composition, he has also made a number of changes. Honthorst, for example, does not hide one of the crucifixes with a cloth like his predecessor, but instead depicts the nail as it was driven through the hand and into the wood, to show the brutality and the force that was used. The protégées from Utrecht were, on balance, rougher as they depicted rotten teeth and dirty feet. The filth of everyday life.

Utrecht's Caravaggists thus went on to advance Caravaggio's naturalism.

Yes, and that suited them well, given that in the Netherlands a tradition of lifelike painting had previously taken hold. They were, of course, also most impressed by Caravaggio's expert use of light and shadow, for which he was well known. He had not invented the "chiaroscuro" technique in painting, but did take it a step further by transforming the shadows and dark background into darkness. This generated incredibly strong contrasts. For Da Vinci, who relied heavily on the interplay between light and shadow, the transitions between the two are still foggy and blurry. With Caravaggio, these are crisp. In doing so, he succeeded in increasing the figures' spatiality, bringing them to the fore, and intensifying their emotional expressions. Caravaggio almost always chose the same amount of light to achieve this effect. Light penetrates from the upper left into the picture and illuminates figures and objects evenly. Although the artists from Utrecht embraced the harsh contrasts of Caravaggio, they used light differently.


Honthorst positioned the light source directly in the picture. Candles or torches. You can see this quite well in his work entitled "Merry company". The candle is hidden, while its glow illuminates the central figure in the picture. It's the procuress. The light accentuates her face, her open mouth with her rotten teeth and her turban-like headdress. This permitted contemporary viewers to clearly identify her. She's the lady brings the loose women together with the men. By placing the light source in the picture, Honthorst created the opportunity to set highlights, to emphasise his narrative, and to enhance the drama of the picture.

Observers can even see how the flame breaks in the guest's glass.

Yes, and that is another interesting detail, given that the viewer recognises the impact that the scientific knowledge of the day had on painting. During this time, numerous optical aids were invented, including the telescope or even the microscope. Those commissioning the works wanted to see these innovations appear in any form within the picture. And that is why the broken candle flame in the shot glass is positioned both optically precise and physically correct upside down.

Did the Utrecht artists also pay attention to how light is distributed realistically in the room?

It is important to remember that each of their pictures, as lifelike as they may seem, were all staged. This also applies to the lighting mood. And yet the artists from Utrecht paid great attention to the optical phenomenon of light propagation, and made this a key consideration in their work. Another fine example is Honthorst's painting entitled "Christ before the High Priest", which hangs at the National Gallery in London, and which will be on loan to the exhibition. In this portrait format, you can see how light from a single source – the candle – emanates throughout the whole room and into the background. There, the figures are only marginally perceptible. Caravaggio had not yet done such a thing. However, it must be said that Honthorst was more extreme than Baburen and ter Brugghen in this case. Although they sometimes positioned the light source in the picture, their lighting was more uniform and, consequently, more like Caravaggio.

Many paintings by Caravaggio and the Caravaggists went on to be painted for churches and chapels where there is a dark atmosphere of light. Do you refer to this in the exhibition?

Caravaggio and his successors certainly gave significant consideration to the prevailing conditions in churches, where there was only candle lighting and very limited natural light. The strong contrasts found in their painting and the use of bold colours throughout pay homage to this. It was important to take visitors on an emotional voyage, and to bring them closer to the history of faith. We are not permitted to imitate the sacred lighting mood that existed at that time because we are not allowed to use candles - that would be too dangerous. We are working on this exhibition with spot lights. These will be used to emphasise certain elements of these mostly large format pictures. Of course, in doing so we make statements, we interpret, because we are directing the visitors' gaze: for example, to the picture's lighting mood or to what seems to us to be particularly important. But in the last twenty years, the lighting used for exhibitions has changed quite a bit in any case.

„Caravaggio-like staging has always had an influence on photography and film, and is still a topic being dealt with at film schools.“
Bernd Ebert

In what way?

The light used to be warmer, more yellowish. Today, one prefers bluish light, which is closer to daylight. This change can also be seen in car headlights, which are much cooler in the new models. In our permanent collection we enjoy the luxury of being able to work with natural light, after the renovation work saw the installation of skylights. This is, of course, the best option, because it is neutral light, and we do not interpret with the lighting, but rather allow the viewer free access to the work of art. At special exhibitions such as " Utrecht, Caravaggio und Europa" (Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe), we rely on staging that employs artificial light, just as Honthorst did.

What influence did the Utrecht Caravaggists have on the artists who followed them?

Even Rembrandt, who ran a painter's workshop in Leiden with Jan Lievens in the 1620s, followed in the path carved out by the Caravaggists. Lievens and he were rather slack in their travelling endeavours: they did not travel to Rome, and yet they went on to take over Caravaggio's Italian light. They became familiar with this through the works by the Utrecht artists and from Caravaggio's "Rosary Madonna", which was privately owned by the painter Louis Finson and later hung in Antwerp's church St. Paul.

Where can you find stylistic elements employed by the Caravaggists?

In Dutch painting, their influence was very large overall. All the way through to Vermeer. One example is his picture entitled "The Procuress", which forms part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (state art collection in Dresden). It reminds of the Utrecht artists in terms of choice of motif and lighting mood. But her influence stretches to this very day. Caravaggio-like staging has always had an influence on photography and film, and is still a topic being dealt with at film schools. As part of our supporting programme, you will have the chance to learn more about it. We feature five feature films, a mix of classics including Murnau's "Nosferatu" or Hitchcock's "Psycho" to Sorrento's recent cult hit "La Grande Bellezza" or Paul Verhoeven's rare "The Fourth Man", each paired with a more recent short film of artistic origin. The influence asserted by the Caravaggists on the art world was (and is) tremendous, not only by the artists from Utrecht, but also many more from all over Europe. And 17 of the best are being shown in our exhibition.



Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle


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