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Caravaggio to Casablanca: The Dramatic Power of Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro, literally “light-dark”, originated during the Renaissance but variations of it can be seen in some Greek and Roman art. The use of strong highlights and deep shadow with very few mid-tones achieves a heightened dramatic effect, often to isolate a subject, much as a spotlight does in theater. Caravaggio is seen as one of the pioneers of this style, and he took it even farther in his tenebrist (“murky”) style, which is a ramped-up version, with violent contrasting. Eventually, 20th Century Cinema adopted its use, beginning with German Expressionism, and then on to film noir.

The Conversion of St Paul on the way to Damascus: The lighting focuses on a body thrown off a horse, terrified, shocked, reaching out for help. The horse is a giant but indifferent presence, as is the groom. It’s all about a chaotic moment in the night, disorientation and terror in purely visual terms apart from any religious significance. Caravaggio was expected to paint iconic biblical scenes, but he did them his way.


The Calling of St. Matthew A miraculous intrusion on an everyday scene. The horizontal depiction, with a ray of light slashing across to its target is potent and effective. Jesus emerges out of deep shadow, which is often a hallmark of horror films. Caravaggio was all about surprise, the reaction of astonished and bewildered mortals when confronted with a seemingly chaotic occurrence. The gesture of three different hands aligned along the same plane, perfectly highlighted, pointing toward the “victim”, further reinforces the gravity of the moment.


Georges de La Tour
Dream of St. Joseph In older catalogs this was titled “An Old Man Asleep, woken by a Girl Carrying a Candle.” Is the girl merely a child, or an angel? There is no denying the air of uncertainty and mystery as to what’s going on. Once again a master of light, heavily influenced by Caravaggio, uses his tricks: the mostly black profile of the girl versus the soft, dream like glow of the old man. Our eyes are immediately drawn to her face, which could be said to have a magical, or even angelic, glow, and then descend down the gentle arc of the arm to the sleeping subject. Is she gently waking him or imparting some heavenly message? We don’t know and maybe we don’t care. The upturned hand is a gesture that hides many secrets.The lighting renders everything uncertain. It is the mystery that fascinates.


Magdalene with the Smoking Flame While Caravaggio delighted in the visceral, La Tour painted the intimate. The Italian was a drinker and a brawler, La Tour a prosperous gentleman in the province of Lorraine. In night scenes such as this, the area between light and shadow is a tricky zone. La Tour used the candle as a point source to heighten drama and hold the viewer’s gaze. We are immediately drawn to a model in such an atmosphere of ambiguity. Something evil, something sacred?Again, unlike Caravaggio there is no movement. The woman is ignoring us, deep in thought, meditation, her own world. She could be any woman daydreaming after a day’s labor. But the various props(a skull connects with Golgotha, a bloody scourge) keep reminding us who she is, the sinner, the adulterer with her bare flesh and knees, themes of Vanity and Melancholy. But the utter tranquility of the scene, her pensive gaze seem to convey that she has moved beyond all that and awaits, indeed expects, some kind of bliss soon to come.


Simeon’s Song of Praise The interior gloom of the temple in Jerusalem hangs over everything, a ray of light from some unknown source illuminates a touching scene as if it were a theatrical piece from Shakespeare. Simeon holds onto the infant as if his life depended on it. He was promised that he would not die before seeing the Messiah; he is so moved that he breaks into a song of praise.It is a joyous moment in the midst of the darkness. Mary and Joseph sit nearby in awe. Rembrandt captures the beautiful moment of surprise, as if they didn’t know what to expect, other than a mere ceremonial blessing. But the artist renders it with much greater intensity by his expertise of the profoundly dramatic chiaroscuro effect, pulling us into the sheer emotion of the moment.


Film Noir
Shanghai Express Shanghai Lily is aboard a train during a Chinese civil war, where she encounters a former lover. It’s a dangerous, exotic atmosphere and in shots like this, perfectly sensual. Director Von Sternberg used a Butterfly Light here, so named from the shadow it creates beneath her lip. It was considered a “beauty light” in the 30’s and worked best with a lean model who has prominent cheekbones, below which soft shadows appear. Light falls upon her from above at an angle. Three fourths of the shot is in deep shadow, producing the classic chiaroscuro effects of mystery and drama. Dietrich’s slightly parted lips are a focal point that together with her upward looking eyes create a poignant sense of vulnerability, and that look of accepting ones fate the actress was so adept at portraying. The hands clutching the face heightens the tension of the scene, which changes by degrees as the train rumbles on and the camera hovers around her. Despite being filmed in Hollywood, it retains an undeniable European sensibility in its look.


The Exorcist In this scene the exorcist arrives at the home of the afflicted child. The lighting evokes pure dread with the silhouette of the priest’s hesitant figure bathed in the abnormal light emanating from the room where he will engage in the battle of his life. There’s nothing particularly eerie about the home, but that light flowing out like a death ray warns us that this priest may already be a doomed man, so strikingly achieved is the effect. It is an image of something alien that has descended upon a peaceful neighborhood and has taken root up in that bedroom, apart from any logic or reason, and therein lies the terror- of something unknown that cannot be stopped.
While not as classically chiaroscuro as other examples, it is more appropriately a cinematic appropriation of the technique, peculiar to film noir, (note the wet street), but instead of a detective we have a priest, a detective of sorts in this case.



Casablanca a woman peers out into the night, tension is palpable, half her face in shadow, applied like a slash of black paint. Nothing subtle here. Ilsa watches her husband risk his life by going out after curfew in the Nazi occupied city. The low key lighting is classic noir, in keeping with the director Michael Curtiz’s expressionist background.


A Captain confronts a man’s shadow. Anyone in a shadow is immediately suspicious. Captain Renault is in white and here seems to represent good, versus Rick’s, who is no angel, literal darkness


Delicate and precise highlights in a scene  bathed in shadow. The man, Victor, looks ready to bolt, while wife Ilsa seems resigned and despairing. Gloom that you can feel.


The parting. This exquisite composition has the black back of Renault on the left, the two lovers in subdued light on the right, and the three hazy lights of the plane in the middle, an escape, but for whom? That wet sheen on the tarmac adds its noir touch, but it is the tension between dark and light that creates the dynamic. and in between the couple inhabit a kind of Limbo.