Caravaggio’s Contarrelli Chapel in High-Res and Head-On

If you visit the Contarelli Chapel in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi, you can see the paintings that made Caravaggio a superstar.  The only down side is having to appreciate The Calling of St. Matthew and The Martyrdom of St. Matthew at oblique angles.

Thanks to Factum Arte’s extraordinary images you can now see the images head-on with a close-up look that only Caravaggio’s brush could have bested.

The video they created about the creation of these images—and subsequent facsimiles of the paintings—is also worth a look.

Seeing is Believing: Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul, Formal Analysis and Critical Thinking

I teach a 100 level on-site Art History class for The American University of Rome called Art of Rome.¹  I began teaching it in the Spring of 2007 and, as of this writing, have taught it every semester since.  It is, in essence, a hybrid of historical fact—names, dates, places and vocabulary—combined with a methodology designed to enable students to describe, analyze and interpret the meaning of a work of art based on its formal qualities.

It was back in December of 2006 with The Calling of Someone at the Table that I demonstrated how formal analysis serves the understanding and interpretation of a painting.  Here is yet another attempt—perhaps long overdue—to further the cause.

What Something IS is Not What Something MEANS

This is the hardest thing to get beginning students of formal analysis to understand.  This concept runs parallel to the mantra I use with my beginning drawing students: draw what you see, not what you know.

When discussing this idea in class, I’m quick to make comparisons with literature, i.e., pointing out that The Wizard of Oz is a story about a girl, her dog, a tin man, a scarecrow and a lion and their quest to find a great and powerful wizard who can help the girl and her dog return home.  But what The Wizard of Oz means is something else entirely and it is fun to point to some of the many theories that litter the web.

Now, while narrative is often the fruit of the sum of the parts of a figurative painting—the hand of a nude female extending fruit to a nude male easily excites a literary imagination—often times the way in which those parts are arranged, modeled and emphasized may speak to a meaning that is completely detached from the title of the work or the overt actions of the figures.  Narrative in formal analysis is a trap.

What is Formal Analysis?

Formal analysis is an examination of the formal qualities—the parts—of a painting; it is an investigation of the management of those parts and an attempt to understand why and how the decisions made by the artist affect meaning.

The formal qualities of a painting include: size, subject matter, scale, light, line, shape, color, texture, perspective, proportion, rhythm and composition.

With so many to choose from it can at first seem overwhelming, but, often times the artist helps us by limiting the thrust of meaning to one or several of these formal qualities.  Let’s take Caravaggio’s (second) Conversion of Saul as an example:


What Is the Painting According to the Patron and Context?

For the answer, all we need to do is read the title: The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus.  Easy enough.  In fact, Caravaggio’s realism makes it hard to see it differently.  Saul, having fallen from his horse, embraces the divine light (as opposed to seeing the light—clever to the last, is Caravaggio not?) and marks his conversion to Christianity and his change in name from Saul to Paul.

What Is the Painting According to a Philistine* or a Man from Mars?

A man on the ground, on his back, arms outstretched, his head closest to the viewer, with the body of a horse above him and a second figure standing behind the horse’s head.

In essence, this is the first part of our methodology, Description, albeit a succinct version of it. Description is an objective account of the image with every effort made to avoid value judgements.

* Philistine: a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.  Apple dictionary.

Formal Analysis of the Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus

Let’s pick four formal qualities: Light, line, shape and composition.

  • Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the source of the light.
  • Line serves the emotional and psychological complexity: Saul’s facial expression is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
  • Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of Saul’s embrace, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
  • Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (Saul) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saul and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by Saul’s outstretched arms.  Note: there are many more observations we could make about the composition, but these are the ones I’ve chosen to focus on.

What Does the Painting Mean When Taken in Context?

Here is where we get to turn the screw.  In one to three sentences, I’ll declare an interpretation of these formal qualities while also taking into consideration the sociopolitical environment in which it was made, i.e., the Counter-Reformation:

Caravaggio uses a journalistic realism to convince his religious patrons that his aim is true to the cause of conversion while simultaneously using composition as a vehicle to subvert that message and “counter-reform” meaning: at the center of Saul’s circular embrace is nothing more than the hoof of a horse, a visual pun inferring that those devoted to the light of Christianity are but willing victims to a doctrine and dogma that tramples the spirit.


Wow.  Now that’s an interpretation using only formal analysis.  But, it does require an understanding of context.  So what if don’t have even that?

What Does the Painting Mean without Knowing the Context?

Well, let’s refine our formal analysis.  Let’s say we don’t know the title and thus don’t know the name of the protagonist.  That means our analysis would now look like this:

  • Light serves the drama and the mystery. It is hard to understand the setting (where) or the time of day (when) or where exactly the light originates (top right), or even the identity of the source of the light.
  • Line serves emotive complexity: Saul’s the facial expression of the figure on this back is serene, the horse’s juxtaposed ears allude to perplexity and the visual stitch of legs—made of the horse and standing attendant—is disorienting.
  • Shape serves the curvilinear mass of the horse’s body juxtaposed with the curvilinear form of Saul’s the lower figure’s outstretched arms, which together emphasize a circle (and whatever is contained within that circle).
  • Composition, which is essentially the final arrangement of all formal qualities, specifically serves the compression of space, the division of the lower half (Saul the figure on his back) to the upper half (the horse and standing figure), the position of the horse’s weight-bearing foot to Saul the lower figure and the position of the horse’s lifted hoof to the oval shape created by the Saul’s lower figure’s outstretched arms.

By not naming the subject matter we help to ensure that we won’t be mislead by what we may know of the narrative.  Also, we could even push this to the furthest extreme and pretend we don’t even know the name of the artist, let alone the sociopolitical environment of the time.

In light of that, I’ll change my interpretation entirely:

The artist takes the narrative of a horse and fallen rider and transforms it into a moment of prurient revelation. This theme of sexual enlightenment is triggered by the visual and literal weight of the horse’s weight-bearing foot that falls upon the groin of the fallen rider.  In truth, the illusional space allows for this foot to be behind the groin, but the compositional alignment of the foot and groin with regard to the pictorial space (the flat surface of the picture) can not be by chance.  Despite the visceral response this discovery might have upon the viewer, the fallen rider’s serene expression contradicts any sense of physical trauma and instead announces, with arms outstretched, a knowing and joyous embrace of the worlds’s earthly pleasures.


Could a reasonable person disagree with that?  Absolutely.  Have I effectively used formal analysis to support my claim.  I think so.

And there you have it.

¹ Art of Rome is an Art History course created, developed and taught by the late great Prof. Terry Kirk for The American University of Rome for more than twenty years.  I literally took this class with Prof. Kirk in the Fall of 2006 (the semester before I taught it) and we went on to have many joyous and energetic discussions regarding its continuous evolution and refinement.  It is a great honor for me to continue his legacy and it is his memory that ever inspires the enthusiastic and tenacious teaching spirit I try and bring to every class.

Is Burnt Umber Evil?

Some time back in 2012 I read Virgil Elliot’s Traditional Oil Painting.  He refers to Burnt Umber as a Problematic Pigment:

The author [Virgil Elliott] has all but dropped burnt umber from his palette, owing to its high degree of absorbency when dry, which causes varnish to sink in, leaving chalky-appearing “dry spots.”  It can be useful as a minor ingredient in a paint mixture when faster drying is desired, such as in instances where raw umber would not produce the right color.  Both burnt umber and raw umber are essentially clays, which have a natural tendency to shrink when dry and swell when saturated with a fluid.  However, since burnt umber undergoes a heating process in its creation, it is the worse of the two in that regard.  Raw umber does not seem to be quite as problematic.

Also around that time I was having a series of phone conversations with some of the employees at Kremer in Germany and was advised not to use umbers at all (burnt or raw) in that they tend to creep to the surface (I’m paraphrasing), and unfortunately I didn’t ask for an explanation with regard to the chemistry.

Jump to September of 2013 when my research into alkyd mediums led me to a paint maker named Pip Seymour.  Not knowing where to buy his paints in Rome, I called him.  I was so pleased to discover that he was both amenable and patient in helping me better understand the chemistry behind painting that he readily became a victim of his kindness; the more answers he provided, the more questions I asked.  In a follow-up phone call I decided to get his analysis of burnt umber and, in my effort to keep the question as succinct as possible, I decided to phrase the question with a touch of drama: “Is burnt umber evil?”

In essence, his opinion was to keep it simple (which he wisely applies to most of his analyses).  He did suggest the importance of stand oil as a binder/medium with such a color in that it helps to keep the pigment particles even as they dry.  He went on to say, “Changes in surface appearance may enhance the aesthetic within a painting – but that understanding can alter over time just as the organic composition of all oil paint layers can change.  The most crucial factor is the realization of the image at the moment of creation.”

A couple of days after that phone call, I sent him the following email:

An extraordinarily bizarre thing happened on the evening after our last discussion: I was organizing some of my many, many PDF files on technical analysis, when one in particular caught my eye. It was on Caravaggio’s time in Malta, and, as I had just finished reading a technical analysis on the Beheading of John the Baptist, I chose that one to read before going to bed that night.

Now, you may remember that my second question to you last Friday was, “Is Burnt Umber evil?” Evil seemed the best word to sum up what I had read previously on the pigment, especially in light of Virgil Elliot’s call for its banishment from the palette.

Well, low and behold, that night I read the following from Caravaggio and Paintings of Realism in Malta by Roberta Lapucci:

“The defect of this technique [working over a dark priming] is that, with time, the chromatic balance is altered, reinforcing the shadows and absorbing the half tones. Burnt umber has a unique chemcial characteristic; during the drying process of the pictorial film, its manganese molecules tend to migrate towards the external surface to absorb oxygen (the element also needed by oil when it polymerizes). Therefore, by rising up to the pictorial surface, burnt umber eats out the half tones and reinforces the shadowy areas. However, it does not pass through lead white, thus increasing the contrast even more. Such a dark priming layer is used with a chromatic function ‘but not… en reserve’ rather ‘to intensify the contrasts, to make the pictorial layers vibrate and to absorb lights’; some white strokes ‘hardly can cover the dark ground’.

“In 1681 Filippo Baldinucci defines burnt umber as ‘a natural colour, of dark hair tonality, used to pain and to put in the priming layers of canvas and panel paintings. This is held by the best painters to be an evil colorit has such a desiccative power that is does not work well in the priming layers and in the oil layers also due to the other poor qualities, it makes colours change; which is why it fooled many artists, who used it in their canvases, even those who were very good in colour rendering’.” (Yes, it reads “evil”! It was a Twilight Zone moment.)

So there, fellow painters, is the chemistry behind umber… and even a moral judgement!  But is it evil?  I am still undecided.  But I am trying some new browns with a mixture of  yellow earth, red ochre and black.

The Obfuscation of Lazarus… and Subsequent Illuminations

This past Sunday, July 8th, I went to see the newly restored “Raising of Lazarus” by Caravaggio on display through the 15th in Rome’s Palazzo Braschi.  This was a “must see” for me, as the painting’s actual home is in Sicily.  Having just visited Malta, this would also allow me to follow another chronological step forward in Caravaggio’s development: his escape from Malta took him first to Sicily.  It was also a chance for me to finally visit the Palazzo Braschi, a place I have passed innumerable times (it’s right next to Piazza Navona), but until now, have never been inspired to visit.

With great anticipation I made my way up a grand marble staircase and through a series of corridors to where the painting awaited behind a make-shift entrance of panels printed with facts and details of the restoration.  The darkened atmosphere reminded me of Malta; my excitement grew as I re-imagined the way in which The Beheading of John the Baptist had been so splendidly illuminated.

When I turned the final corner to see the painting, I couldn’t believe it.  Glare.

The painting was lit so poorly that it was hard to see from a distance.  Worse, the closer I got to the painting, the harder it was to see, especially key parts of the painting like the raised hand of Lazarus or the beckoning hand of Christ.

Shame on the museum and the curator of the show for such incompetence.  I turned to the guard next to the painting and told him as much.  He smiled and held out his hand, though I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret the gesture.  As I shook his hand, I heard a woman’s voice over my left shoulder say, “I agree with you entirely,” and turning to see she too held out her hand, she added, “I am the person who restored the painting.”

Wow.  That might be the first time ever that I’ve carelessly run my mouth and benefitted.

I spoke to Anna Marcone briefly about the restoration and in particular asked about how Caravaggio prepared the canvas, the composition and the pigments.  Here are my notes:

  • The darks were made up mostly of a Sicilian version of Terra Brusciata (“Burnt Sienna”) and black;
  • The canvas was not first covered with a lead white base.  Instead he covered the canvas with a mix of the Terra di Sicilia Brusciata and black and then scraped the drawing in with the tip of the brush handle;
  • Ochre for yellow, Vermilion for red.  His blue was an Azurite;
  • The red of the robe on the right differs from the one on the left in that it is painted with a combination of Vermilion and Lead Tin Yellow (Naples Yellow with Lead).

After my extraordinary chance encounter, I took some time to try to try and get a better view.  Perhaps what struck me most about the painting was how easy the darker moments of the painting could deceive my eye: just when I thought it couldn’t get any darker I would stumble across an even blacker patch of paint, like the moment under the lower hand of Lazarus.

I suspect that Caravaggio had by this time acquired a significant understanding on how to manipulate the lower range of his palette.  It would be interesting to know how much the diversity of that palette was the result of premixed values or if it was achieved through multiple layers of the same color.

I did spend some time visiting the rest of the museum.  I was struck by two other artists and their work:

One of My Top Ten Greatest Paintings of All Time

Worth the journey ten times over.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio n Malta, June, 2012.

pLog Pith X

Where Velázquez is Grace, Caravaggio is Guts.

Where Velázquez is Economy, Caravaggio is Ambiguity.

Everybody Wants Some

News in Italy today that there is a newly discovered Caravaggio.

I’ve seen an image… and that most definitely is not a Caravaggio.

“Bianco di San Giovanni”

This white was mentioned in an earlier post on Caravaggio as an “extender white” for oil painting.  However, on a manufacturer’s website it indicates the following:

Bianco di San Giovanni is considered the white pigment par excellence for fresco painting. It is used also in tempera and grounds while it is not advised in oil and encaustic painting techniques.

Clearly there is some confusion.  I will research further…

The Calling of Someone at the Table

A painter’s analysis of Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew by Timothy Joseph Allen.
Written as a response to my late great colleague Professor Terry Kirk in December, 2006.  Published on pLog July, 2010.

Terry, your analysis and interpretation of this painting is intriguing.  I especially like your idea about pinpointing the exact moment in time that has been captured–and if I’ve understood correctly–you assert it is just after the words of Christ have been spoken, but just before the words of Christ have been heard by its intended recipient–the figure on the far left.

However, I would argue that Levi–soon to be Matthew–is indeed the one in the center of the table.  I’ve created the following diagram to support my argument.

Tip: right click to open in new window to see a bigger version in a separate window while you read.

Read more

Caravaggio Techniques and the Camera Obscura

Today I had a lively in-studio conversation with friend, colleague and restorer Eowyn Kerr on Caravaggio, his technique (did he glaze?) and why a painter should never underestimate the potential of a good table cloth.  She was even kind enough to make for me a lovely sketch on how to understand the cross-section of a painting sample (though she refused to sign it) and, in doing so, she suggested to me that Caravaggio did not lay in a lead white base for flesh to then glaze down, but rather, worked with a flesh mid-tone, then made the highlights with a flesh-colored lead white mix.  To be specific: begin the flesh with an “extender white” or “shell white” (once known as “Biacco di San Giovanni”) mixed with some yellow ochre, green earth and vermillion, then, over that, the lead white flesh.

Read more

pLog Pith V

If you want Warhol
walk the aisle of a supermarket

If you want Koons
watch VHS porn

If you want Hirst
visit the morgue


If you want Caravaggio
build a bonfire in a cave

If you want Velazquez
plan a trip to the moon with a sliderule

If you want da Vinci
hike the highest mountain in Abruzzo in May


A Story About Jan

Here is what happened: I just listened to the story on NPR about Plato, which mentions Pythagoras, which makes me think “Art = Math”, which makes me think Velazquez, then Las Meninas, then I remembered mentioning that in a short story I wrote while rafting through the Grand Canyon in 2008.

Here is that story:

A Story About Jan

The First of Many

(Changed from the previous title: How Unspeakable Acts of Wickedness Shape my World View.)

Jan denied me an M&M again today.  As her boat came along side mine I said:

“Hey, Jan!  Throw me an M&M!”

She shook her head.  “Only for my boat,” she said, and drifted past.

Of course, it is important to keep such moments of pain and unrequited pleasure in perspective, but I am slow in doing so.  I reluctantly hear the voice of my father float back from down stream, from a past, not a future, and it reprises the irritating truth:

“In twenty years, who’s going to care?”

But in a river of walls that has seen its share of twenties, truth begs revision.  How deep yet subtle our solipsism sets its roots and shapes our thinking.  From now on I’ll say:

“In a billion years, who’s going to care?”

From now on I will begin discussions on precious art with the preamble that ten billion years from now our sun will explode–so Meredith says–and the finger of Thomas will melt away in the wound of Caravaggio’s Christ and the angelic face in Velazquez’s Meninas will incinerate.  From now on I will tempt others with the unpopular:  When measuring the probabilities of miracles, the most probable is the one you are living.

If nothing else, these ruminations are a satisfying distraction.  A good way to keep my head up, to keep looking down stream, to the future, not the past.

Ahead I see Jan’s boat.  Maybe tomorrow she’ll give me an M&M.

On the Colorado River, Grand Canyon
August 17th, 2008

PS  Later in the afternoon I read Jan my story.  That night she gave me a beer.

Note to self:  write more stories about Jan.