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Art History Terms: Tenebrism

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m adding another definition to our “art history dictionary”! Today’s concept is a bit of a continuation of the post on chiaroscuro, or the use of light and dark in a painting. Known as tenebrism, this contrast is taken to the extreme! So, to learn more, keep on reading!


Definition and History

According to the National Gallery (UK), the word tenebrism comes from the Italian word tenebroso. It means darkened or obscured and is certainly the perfect description for this technique! Essentially, artists would only highlight the most important aspects of the painting (facial features, hand gestures, etc) and the rest of the scene would be almost entirely in the dark. Some art historians have even described it as a “violent contrast” between light and dark.

The famous Baroque artist Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio is generally credited with the invention of the tenebrism technique. However, there were some artists that started to use the technique before him including El Greco and Tintoretto. But, one can argue that Caravaggio brought it to light (pun intended) and made it popular.


Example: The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio

Now that we have that definition down, let’s look at an example. This painting is often cited as one of the most perfect examples of tenebrism in art history. It is titled The Calling of St. Matthew and was painted by Caravaggio between 1599–1600.

The main light in the painting doesn’t have a visible source, though it streaks through the room from the top right corner. Some theorize that it is meant to be from an open door. The light moves towards the bottom left corner, highlighting a man, who points at himself. This is St. Matthew. If you look closely at the right hand side of the work, there is another man pointing at our main character. The obscured man is meant to be Christ, pointing out that he wants the tax collector Matthew to become one of his disciplines.

It was an unusual choice on the part of Caravaggio to place Christ in almost complete darkness. After all, he was often the center of religious art during the Baroque period! Well, there is a simple explanation for that! This work is a set of three that were commissioned by the French cardinal Matthieu Cointerel. He wanted to show the life of the saint that he was named after and gave Caravaggio his first major commission. By literally highlighting St. Matthew, the artist, was doing exactly what his patron wanted.

If you would like to learn more about this work, I have an entire video dedicated to it! Click here to watch!


Tenebrism represents some of the most dramatic works of art in western history. The intense contrast between dark and light forces the viewer to focus and discover the details that might remain hidden otherwise!



Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S Kleiner

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