Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Use of Tenebrism in 17th Century Religious Painting

Tenebrism is a painting technique developed around the 17th century as a more pronounced offshoot of chiaroscuro. It involved using the stark contrast of light and darkness usually in order to draw the viewer’s eyes towards a particular place in the painting. Tenebrism, when utilized correctly, can be one of the most powerful visual tools an artist can use in painting. It was used extensively by artists such as Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Francisco de Zurbaran, especially in their religious paintings. Caravaggio is credited with creating the technique, and it shows in many of his works. For example, in his 1601 painting Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio uses Tenebrism in order to highlight Saul, soon to be Paul, after he has fallen to the ground at the words of the risen Christ. However, Tenebrism can be used for more than just spotlighting. In many religious paintings, the technique is used to symbolize good and evil, with light representing truth and/or Christ and darkness representing deception and sin. Used in this way, Tenebrism made these religious paintings much more powerful and real than if they were left more evenly painted. Seeing the direct contrast with one’s eyes is much more direct and salient than simply knowing the difference between Christ and the world around us. The use of Tenebrism is essential for fully understanding and appreciating the religious paintings of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Zurbaran; were the contrast absent, the events portrayed would lose their intensity and their impact on the viewers.

The Battle Between Christians and Moors at El Sotillo
Francisco de Zurbaran
Oil on Canvas


Francisco de Zurbaran was a Spanish painter who often focused on religious subjects. This painting was originally the center of an altarpiece created for the Carthusian monastery Nuestra Senora de la Defension in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. The painting’s arched top contains a well-lit heavenly realm with the Virgin Mary and her angels looking over the battle. Zurbaran’s use of light draws the viewer’s eyes immediately to Mary, showing that the light that appeared for the Spanish soldiers during the battle was from Heaven itself. Zurbaran’s use of Tenebrism here is fairly light, but still distinct enough to draw our attention to Mary and therefore the faithfulness of God to his people.

The Denial of St. Peter
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
Oil on Canvas

Caravaggio was one of the original creators of Tenebrism, so the technique is found in many of his paintings. In The Denial of St. Peter, Caravaggio bathes the entire scene in darkness, partially to be true to the biblical passage he drew inspiration from, but also to accentuate the dark events that viewers would have known were occurring. Besides the face of Peter, the most light is focused on three fingers, two of Peter’s and one from the servant girl accusing him. The number three is significant because it is the number of times Peter denied Christ. The overall darkness of the painting heightens the drama, and the areas that stand out are made more meaningful by their light.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
Oil on Canvas
Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany

In one of the most powerful moments in the Gospels, Jesus appears to Thomas, who had declared that he must see His wounds to believe, and invites him to touch him and know that he is real; “Stop doubting and believe!” He begs Thomas. Here again, Tenebrism is used to spotlight the people in the painting, but it goes much deeper than that as well. In the light on the left of the picture stands Jesus, wounds and all, resurrected and triumphant. In the darker right side stands Thomas, who doubted, dumbfounded and allowing his hand to be guided to the wound in Christ’s side. The symbolism provided by Caravaggio’s use of Tenebrism is powerful, with the light of Christ gently but definitively melting away the doubt of his disciple and bringing him into eternal life.

Conversion on the Way to Damascus
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio
Oil on Canvas
Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Another Caravaggio, this painting portrays the soon-to-be-apostle Paul, still called Saul, thrown to the ground by the power of Christ’s miraculous intervention and vision. The painting as a whole is quite chaotic, with a horse stepping around that we are not sure won’t step on Saul, and all of his equipment scattered on the ground. However, rather than being surrounded by darkness as the rest of the scene is, Paul is bathed in very bright light. Caravaggio did this very intentionally, as his practical goal was to focus the viewer’s gaze on Saul, but he also did it to show that Saul was at a major crossroads in his life. He was crossing from death into life, from slavery to freedom; he even changed his name. Without the light around Saul, the impact of the painting would be significantly lessened.

The Stoning of Stephen
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on Canvas
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, France

The first signed painting of Rembrandt’s, The Stoning of Stephen portrays the murder of Christianity’s first martyr. The painting is sharply divided, almost exactly in half, into light and darkness. Stephen is not the only one in the light, but he is looking up to Christ rather than looking down in hatred as the others are doing. To the left, completely in the darkness, sits what appears to be the High Priest on a horse. He and Saul (in the background with the cloaks in his lap) seem to be the ringleaders. It must be noted that while the High Priest is gazing downward, shrouded in darkness because of his evil decision, Saul is in the light, and like the righteous Stephen he is looking up. This may be foreshadowing Saul’s change into the apostle Paul.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on Canvas
The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Among the last paintings by Rembrandt before his death, this painting imagines the moment that the Prodigal son returns home to his father, exhausted and spent. As the viewers would know, instead of punishing him the father welcomes him back with joy. Again, Tenebrism brings so much life to this painting; the joyful father and his tattered son are bathed in light, symbolizing their restored relationship, and by extension all repentant sinners’ restored relationship with God. In the dark however, stands the older brother, who casts a judgemental look at his broken younger brother. He has taken his father’s love and grace for granted, and now cannot understand why he does not favor him over the prodigal son. He is surrounded by darkness because he does not understand the Father’s grace, just as many Christians do not understand how God can forgive some who are believed to be evil beyond all hope of salvation. Without the contrast of light and dark it would be much harder to figure out which figure is which, and the impact of the parable would be severely lessened.

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