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ICON Seminar 6

Dartington Hall, UK


Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro – the light and dark of Milan in crisis

Helena Gaunt

Last updated August 19, 2013

At our last seminar in Dartington, I had a powerful experience where I began to understand and own the importance of rough and raw sound as well as conventionally beautiful sound in my playing. And I experienced in a new way how this relates to the different qualities in my own energy, both dark and light. My training and experience as an oboe player has been almost exclusively to focus on the conventionally beautiful, or “light” energy, this being what is desired to produce the right sound and approach to being a classical performer. The joining of light and dark in my internal world and in my music was liberating, a relief. It made me feel easier and opened a vein of creativity.

After the seminar I started to reflect on this theme of light and dark. What other insights could I discover? I found myself attracted to the painter Caravaggio. I’ve always been fascinated by his work, though I’m not sure I’d say I liked it!  As I explore, I am struck by the way in which his life and world, and profound struggle in society are all played out in his work. There is no way in which I can think of him other than as an artist “in society”.


Where did his art come from? One part that has leapt off the page for me is the extent to which he recreated on canvas the world around him as he had experienced it, intentionally to a degree and subconsciously. His work catches vividly what he saw – the physical images, what he internalized from the intensity of his experience and the zeitgeist of Italy at the turn of the 17th century. His art embodies the relationship between him as artist and society.

Caravaggio’s art is made from darkness and light. His pictures present spotlit moments of extreme and often agonized human experience. A man is decapitated in his bedchamber, blood spurting from a deep gash in his neck. A man is assassinated on the high altar of a church. A woman is shot in the stomach with a bow and arrow at point-blank range. Caravaggio’s images freeze time but also seem to hover on the brink of their own disappearance. Faces are brightly illuminated. Details emerge from darkness with such uncanny clarity that they might be hallucinations. Yet always the shadows encroach, the pools of blackness that threaten to obliterate all. Looking at his pictures is like looking at the world by flashes of lightning.
(Graham-Dixon, A. (2010) Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane London, Penguin: p3)

 1576, October.  Caravaggio, aged 5 is living in Milan. The city has been hit by the plague. No one really knows its origins, and people only have an inkling of how it really spreads. A mystery, it is perceived as a curse, a terrible visitation from a vengeful God. Symptoms are grim, and piles of bodies on carts roll through the streets day and night. Carlo Borromeo (Archbishop of Milan and radical reformer of the Catholic faith) is convinced that the only way to salvation is through passionate identification with the suffering of Christ. He stages a series of public re-enactments of Christ’s journey to Calvary, and orders 3 days of fasting. He himself plays the part of Christ, “with a large rope around his neck, barefoot and hooded, dragging his clothes on the ground, and with a large Crucifix in his arms.” (eye witness Jesuit Paolo Bisciola). Huge crowds are exhorted to join these public demonstrations. And Bisciola describes the detail:

Borromeo ordered temporary altars, lit with candles, to be set up throughout the streets of the city, ‘so that to walk in the streets was like walking in church.’ As autumn advanced, and as the nights drew in, the city seemed ablaze with the ‘lights of piety and religion’. On a multitude of outdoor altars ‘there burned a great quantity of candles and much insense.’ Flame and shadow: Milan had become a city of chiaroscuro. (p.51)



In it’s own way Bacchus embodies what I see as Caravaggio’s extraordinary ability to play with light and dark (in paint and metaphorically), – the air of mystery and challenge as Bacchus offers the glass of wine to the viewer with an enticing and questioning eye is exciting and terrifying at once.

There is a decanter on the table in front of him, two thirds full of a wine so darkly crimson that it looks almost black. There are bubbles at its surface and its level is askew, a minute touch of realism that makes the moment captured in the painting seem ever more fleeting. The wine is still swinging in the heavy bowl of the decanter. The boy-god has just set it down, after pouring a glassful of the liquid into the fine-stemmed Venetian goblet that he holds, delicately, in his left hand. He offers the wine to a viewer of the painting. His expression is gently quizzical, his half-raised eyebrow both invitation and challenge: unriddle me if you can.

 The Bacchus is a sophisticated, courtly work of art, calculated to catch the eye and then hold it. It is an enigma embodied as a rich store of captivating details. Viewed from a certain perspective, the picture seems ripe with sensuality, bordering on outright lubricity. The barely draped boy might be no more than an elaborately wrapped sexual gift. Does he himself not hint at that possibility, with the suggestive play of his right hand in the knot of black ribbon that binds his clothes?

That would be the profane approach to the picture. But there is space for a devout approach too. There is another way of undoing that knot. Bacchus is the god of wine and of autumnal fruitfulness, and in keeping with that Caravaggio has given him another of his overflowing baskets of fruit. The black grapes have never seemed so lustrous, the figs so ripe. But the foliage once more is withered, the apple worm-eaten, the quince and the plum bruised. The pomegranate has split and collapsed, disgorging its fleshy seeds. Once more, a sense of Eucharistic implication hovers in the still air. Summer has become autumn and the sere leaves at the basket’s edge are the presage of death to come. But there is hope here too: the transcendent promise of eternal life is contained in the glass of wine held so carefully by the boy-god – and with such precise metaphorical intent – directly above the basket of decaying fruit. (p.154-55)


The Musicians

The Muscians is a relatively early Caravaggio. It’s unusual in that it does not show us musicians in concert, nor does it fulfil the escapist Arcadian pastoral scene relatively popular at the time. Rather we are watching musicians preparing, and somewhat disheveled, undressed. Are we sure that the performance is going to happen? Have they been disrupted during their rehearsal? The lead singer has his back to us and is clearly not yet ready to perform. Cupid is more focused on the grapes than the task in hand. Something is in the making, there are all kinds of possibilities and nothing is certain.

It reminds me that we are always in the process of making. And that making is a dance between the immediate context and what we bring to it. Perhaps there is a problem if we try to make the situation all “light” – beautiful, packaged. Where are the elements of dark?

The picture was painted for the Cardinal del Monte, actively involved in the Papal court and known for his broad and experimental musical taste. He hosted impromptu musical gatherings at his various residences, pushing forwards the boundaries of taste, and discovering in less formal settings for example the musical and raw emotional potential of a single accompanied voice in contrast to the dominant vocal styles of polyphony. He gathered artists around him too, Caravaggio among them. It was a laboratory of innovation. Caravaggio may be paying tribute to Del Monte for this role in the picture. Most important is that the laboratory is within society rather than set apart, and is open for us to see.


  1. Hi Helena,
    I totally agree that the darker, rougher side of life should have it’s place in music. It is a very important part of the whole picture. Almost ‘animal or physical’ energy is very powerful and convincing for listeners. Only beautiful can be a bore.
    Thanks for your explicit contribution!

  2. Thanks for this vivid example of light and dark. Yes, in our subjective human experience and our objective expression of that experience, it’s often the contrasts that give it meaning. Polar opposites are important; light and dark, joy and sorrow, self and other, tight and loose, tension and release. They are a great focus in our quest for balance. I can certainly relate to your feelings of liberation and ‘ease’ on embracing, and integrating, the darker side of experience; it’s something I’m not always able to do, but when I allow it to happen I feel more whole.

    As well as the clarity of contrast in Caravaggio, I love his attention to the minutiae of experience. Equally important for balance is the subtlety and multiplicity of human experience and expression, all the shades of grey in between. I’m reminded of a part of Louis MacNeice’s poem The Cromlech:

    …To which we answer, being naïve,
    Wearing the world upon our sleeve,
    That to dissect a given thing
    Unravelling its complexity
    Outrages its simplicity
    For essence is not merely core
    And each event implies the world,
    A centre needs periphery…

    I also love that you describe the process of making as a ‘dance’. It beautifully captures the dynamic and fluid nature of our interaction with our environment. And of course a dance can be visceral, contemplative, muscular, ephemeral, wild, intimate, humorous, passionate, frightening, and everything in between…