I have always been fascinated by Caravaggio’s bold use of light (amongst anecdotes of his “chilling adventures”). The stark contrast makes his works look like film noir. As our old friend David Hockney stated, “he invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.” Now the question is: how did Caravaggio get to see the details submerged in the darkness and so vividly, and almost sensationally, reflected on the canvas? One compelling belief is he had used some sort of optical device, like camera obscure, to aid this process.
Just by looking at this painting, he might have introduced a single strong source of light that illuminates each of his figures against darkness—very similar to a theatrical spotlight. After projecting those subjects onto his canvas, he then would be able to piece all of these photographic close-ups together like a collage—which is exactly how this painting looks like to me. Now, there is certainly no solid evidence that Caravaggio absolutely used this technique, but Giambattista della Porta, the Italian writer who first advocated for artists using camera obscura in his best-selling book Natural Magick, was in frequent communication with Caravaggio’s patron Cardinal del Monte. More mysteries? I think so.