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Caravaggio and Vermeer: shadow and light

Two masters of painting recounted by Claudio Strinati

Published: 15 Dec 2021
​"One is a child of night, so to speak, while the other is a child of the day".
With this rapid and effective brush stroke - to use a painting metaphor - the art historian, Claudio Strinati, sums up the main characters in his latest book, Caravaggio e Vermeer. L’ombra e la luce (Caravaggio and Vermeer. Shadow and Light, Einaudi). 

Focusing on light is the best way to approach the works of Caravaggio and Vermeer. Strinati begins with the Crucifixion of Saint Peter and the Conversion on the Way to Damascus, which Caravaggio painted at the turn of the 1600s for the Cerasi chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. At first glance, we have the sensation that the two scenes take place in a narrow space, but this is the effect of the composition that extends right to the edges of the canvas. “The space depicted by Michelangelo Merisi is really not narrow at all,” writes Strinati, “or better, it is not wide or narrow, it is darkness.”
Caravaggio and Vermeer: shadow and light

Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1600) and Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1600-1601) by Michelangelo Merisi better known as Caravaggio

The strong contrast between light and darkness is not only a spectacular intuition, but also a way of rewriting the theology that had dominated Renaissance painting. Religious episodes no longer produce “a vision where the totality of the dimension of beauty makes every single element shine,” writes Strinati. The emotional tone of the images has therefore changed and along with it the religious vision that had inspired fifteenth and sixteenth century painting. As all the different elements are no longer illuminated by a diffuse, reassuring light. To achieve this, Caravaggio actually rewrote the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles recount, in fact, that Saul, a Roman soldier and persecutor of Christians, was riding to Damascus with his fellow soldiers when he was blinded by divine light and became a Christian. In the painting, however, Saul is on the ground next to an unsaddled horse and a man who looks more like a stable hand than a soldier.
Caravaggio and Vermeer: shadow and light

View of Delft (1660-1661) by Jan Vermeer

Vermeer sees light in a completely different way, and not only because he was born later (in 1632, whereas Caravaggio came into the world in 1571). For example, his View of Delft, writes Strinati, “excited an artist like Proust beyond all measure, as it revealed something dark that he felt inside but could not express. It is this hint of karma that weighs on the houses, the water, the inhabitants, separating them from the rest of the world and to a certain extent, even from themselves. It may seem like a spaceship has arrived from remote, unknown worlds, but, at the end of the day, it is presenting our daily experience.”

Making references to Buddhist karma in the context of seventeenth century Flemish painting may seem even more daring than mentioning spaceships. Strinati, however, is convinced and convincing on this point, as he argues that, “In Vermeer’s work there is no contrast between blinding light and absolute darkness. [...] For Vermeer, light is the equivalent of Indian karma. It is the aura that forms around people and extracts a sort of metaphysical mystery, which is inside, not outside the figure.” In this case, too, light evokes an experience that is almost religious.

If the dimension, arrangement and aesthetics of Caravaggio’s paintings combine to make the spectator feel immediately in awe of God and his power, Vermeer’s canvases require the viewer to be absorbed and ready to pause and investigate the details in depth. These were paintings for private collectors and were therefore destined to be seen up close by the viewer when on their own or in select company. The references to Buddhism also find a bond with the artist’s historical context: “The magical fascination generated by Vermeer’s paintings is [...] that of transcendental meditation, Nirvana and Satori, of a mind focused on the inner self, perhaps suggested by the doctrines that Dutch travellers and merchants continually came into contact with as a result of the activities of the Dutch East and West India Companies.”

Strinati completely reconstructs the historical panorama that puts the paintings of these two masters in relation not only to their personal biographies, but also to the geography of the places they lived in, the cultural climates in which they were immersed, and the social positions of their patrons. All this helps to add further levels of interpretation to artworks without ever treating them as if they were simple, unconscious products of their time. In fact, even a thousand historical studies would not be enough to deprive them of their fascination and the almost magical ethos that surround them.