Conceptualizing Light- Light and Shadow in Renaissance and Baroque Art. [Urvi Shah, UG-2, Roll No.:41]

“…hence, I would remind you, O painter! To dress your figures in the lightest colors you can, since, if you put them in dark colors, they will be in too slight relief, and inconspicuous in distance. And the reason is that shadows of all objects are dark. And if you make a dress dark, there is little variety in the lights and shadows, while in light colors there are many grades.”   

– Leonardo da Vinci

Art reached its highest form in the Renaissance period, with the artists achieving perfection in terms of technique and clarity. The invention of linear perspective and developments in the usage of lights and shadows revolutionized visual arts, fine arts, sculpture and architecture in the two hundred years between 1400 and 1600. Renaissance art was driven by the notion of ‘humanism’ that downplayed religious and secular dogma, attaching greater importance to the individual. Italian artists attempted to revive the classical Greek and Roman art forms and styles as a response to the courtly International Gothic style that prevailed in the 14th century. Art was infused with greater realism, and consequent attention to detail, and also the  mastery of the technique of creating illusions in painting by introducing ‘depth’ in picture and other components such as Chiaroscuro, Sfumato, Foreshortening, and Quadratura. In this context, the usage of the quote by da Vinci at the beginning of my paper becomes important as it is in the Renaissance that aspects of light and dark or shade invade the space of the artist’s canvas, with larger manifestations in Mannerism and Baroque art.

In the Renaissance light was a tool that artists used to define their subject matters, delineate them and bring out a certain sense of realism in the picture. Their works explore the contrasts between light and darkness, and remain clearly defined within sharp boundaries. Light contributes not only to illumination but also to the clarity of the subject matter and the detailing of it. Light to an extent even controlled the forms of the subject matter. The technique of contrasting light and dark, called “Chiaroscuro” (Italian light-dark), demonstrated the skill of an artist in the management of shadows to create a three-dimensional effect in a painting.

Masaccio7 Fig.1, The Tribute Money, Masaccio. One of the early usages of Chiaroscuro that was further developed by Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo, discussed later in the paper.

Gradually into the 17th century, light became a subject in itself. Mannerist painters and later Baroque artists used extreme intense contrasts between light and dark, almost obscuring their subjects to lend drama and mystery to the paintings. If we see Renaissance paintings and Mannerist ones in chronological order, it will be inferred that from the end of the 1600’s more and more emphasis was laid on darkness. Dark areas dominated the canvas, while light took a backseat. The paintings of 17th century artists express a definite stylistic trend called the “pittura tenebrosa”- a compositional technique where large areas of the paintings are immersed in darkness, sometimes an absolute black, to plunge certain parts of the image into obscurity, leaving only one or more points of illumination(s). (Fig.2)

CaravaggioFig. 2, David and Goliath, Caravaggio. Extreme contrasts between light and dark is seen, and figures merge into the background. Caravaggio was the foremost exponent of Tenebrism in Baroque art.

The aim of this paper is to trace the utilization of light in Renaissance paintings and its subsequent transition into Mannerism and Baroque art, juxtaposing the two “The Last Supper” paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Tintoretto respectively. The principle focus remains on Leonardo da Vinci’s notes and observations regarding light and shadow. The concluding section deals with how eventually, ‘darkness’ became the focus of art and artists.

There are very few works centered on the use of light in history of art, although lighting forms a crucial factor in painting. The most essential innovation of the 16th and 17th century art is the “discovery of darkness” or the discovery of nights”, connected to the way of using light. There are a number of ways in which light affects or interacts with artwork, from how a piece is lit, to deliberately incorporating the interaction of light within the work. Leonardo da Vinci writes in his Notebooks- “Darkness is the absence of light. Shadow is the diminution of light.” He further asserts- “The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow.” It was the use of light and shadow that made his paintings revolutionary than lines and perspective. He wrote that light and shade should blend ‘without lines or borders in the manner of smoke’, giving rise to the term- “sfumato”, meaning ‘seen as if through smoke’. While The High Renaissance painters such as Raphael, Michelangelo and da Vinci used chiaroscuro to its best (Fig.3), Baroque artists such as Rubens, Ribera, Tintoretto, El Greco have gifted us numerous pictures of nights, moonlit landscapes etc. The feature typical of the “Maniera tenebrosa” is the use of condensed light, giving the picture an impression of an artificial light that is possible only by employing active darkness in the greater part of the canvas. Such darkness is active both artistically and psychologically and introduces an element of mystery, drama and ambiguity. The contrast with darkness gives to the light a metaphysical and dynamic quality, bringing out the emotion and pathos of the artwork. (Fig.4)     

mFig.3, The Last Judgment, Michelangelo. In this fresco, the artist uses colour and light to form silhouettes. This is an example of a High Renaissance painting with Mannerist tendencies.

the_martyrdom_of_st_bartholomewFig.4, The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, Jusepe de Ribera. The manipulation of light and darkness brings out the drama and pathos in the painting. The artist has employed techniques of tenebrism here.

The 17th century historiography and theory of art barely touch upon the topic of light and shadow. To know more about the utilization of light in art, one needs to go back to speculations about light in medieval philosophy. Medieval scientist Robert Grosseteste blends Neo-Platonist theories of emanation and aspects of Aristotle’s cosmology in his treatise, “On Light”. The effects of light became particularly important to artisans as they frequently associated light with their theories of colours. In the 12th, 13th and 14th century the symbolic meaning of light pervaded theology, philosophy and cosmology. Light was considered the first principle of ‘being’ that prevailed in the entire world. Medieval thinkers considered Light to be God or emanated from God. Plotinus, the ancient philosopher, though not a Christian, believed that God was Light – “The simple beauty of a color is derived from a form that dominates the obscurity of matter and from the presence of an incorporeal light that is reason and idea” (Plotinus, I.6). The incorporeal light, for the Christians, is God’s light and gives splendor to the whole of creation. Light is what allows the beauty of objects, especially their color, to become illuminated, in order to display their beauty to the fullest. Pseudo-Dionysus follows up on these thoughts, “And what of the sun’s rays? Light comes from the Good, and light is an image of this archetypal Good. Thus the Good is also praised by the name ‘Light’, just as an archetype is revealed in its image” (Pseudo-Dionysius, 74). Light was an important condition for beauty. On the other hand, darkness was perceived as evil, negation and the ugly.  This concept changed very slowly and gradually in the Renaissance. The Neo-Platonists of the Quattrocento believed in the medieval metaphysical aesthetics of light. All of Ficino’s cosmography rests on “Divine Light”. Light was the highest value and darkness a heavy inert matter. Humanist and art theorist Leone B. Alberti had said that human beings like bright things by nature and that the dark and black should be avoided. The humanism of the Renaissance period called for deeper speculations and observations of oneself and the surroundings, and thus shadow was discovered. Every solid object, when exposed to light, produced a shadow. This observation interested both artists and scientists alike. Leonardo da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist and the development of the science of light is attributed to him. Later, the aesthetics propagated by him was given a new shape by Caravaggio and his followers some hundred years later. Vinci observes in his notes- “No substance can be comprehended without light and shade; light and shade are caused by light.”  He studied condensed light and advised against the use of it as he regarded it to be of little use to painters. Chiaroscuro introduced by Vinci (from his observations of nature and rules of geometry) developed in the later years of Florentine Renaissance. While the northern school of artists used light and shade to increase tone of colour, the Florentine and Roman school of painters used it to assign realism and enhance plasticity of figures and objects, further delineating shapes and sizes. After Leonardo, it was the treatises of Gian Paolo Lomazzo that marked the evolution of light in art. He dealt with light more comprehensively and divided light into- Primary and Secondary light, of which again, the former can be either Natural Light (from the sun), Metaphysical or Divine Light (from an angel or emanated from a holy person) or Artificial Light (from a torch or candle inside the picture). Divine Light to him appears to be condensed, and examples of this can be found in religious paintings of the 16th and 17th century.

christ mockingFig.5, The Mocking of Christ, Valentin de Boulogne.

Later, this technique was developed by deepening contrast and increasing darkness. An activating gloom prevailed in the canvas that got heightened in 17th century art. At times the background is just black- dark and impenetrable (Fig. 6) and serves examples of dramatic tenebrism.

crucifixionFig. 6, Crucifixion, Alonso Cano.

In the next section of the paper I shall deal with the painting- “The Last Supper” by both Leonardo da Vinci (High Renaissance) and Tintoretto (Baroque), and concentrate on the differential use of lighting and darkness in the two.


The Last Supper(s) – A comment on colour and light.

The Last Supper of Jesus and the twelve apostles is a recurring subject in Christian art. According to the Gospel it is the final meal that Jesus shared with his apostles in Jerusalem before his Crucifixion. Depictions of the Last Supper can be dated back to early Christianity and can be found in the Catacombs of Rome (Fig.7). By the Renaissance, The Last Supper became a favourite subject in Italian art. It has been depicted in both Eastern and Western Churches. Artists such as Giotto, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Fra Angelico, Rubens, Boulogne and many others have painted scenes from the meal. For the convenience of this paper, I have chosen the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Tintoretto as in these one finds clear distinctions in the projection of light and colour.

downloadFig.7. A Paleochristian fresco of a feast in the Catacombs of St. Domitilla, Rome.

Michael Ladwein in his “Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper: A Cosmic Drama and an Act of Redemption” writes that Leonardo’s involvement with the Last Supper motif can be traced as far back as 1481. In that year he painted his Adoration of the Kings, a work that for the first time depicted human emotions by means of facial expressions and complex gestures. Based on this it can be called the forerunner of The Last Supper. Ladwein further asserts that Leonardo must have been familiar with the renditions by Castagno, Ghirlandaio, and Taddeo Gaddi and from the latter borrowed the image of the large table.


Fig.8, The Last Supper, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Similarities can be found with Leonardo da Vinci’s rendition of it below, especially the arches in the ceiling and also the windows that offer a view of the outside.

da vinci supper

Fig.9, The Last Supper by da Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci, like Brunelleschi experimented with perspective, but with emphasis on light. The Last Supper is his capolavoro in its meticulous explorations of light and optics and the careful rendering of the figures casting shadows upon one another. Leonardo da Vinci not only attends to the refraction and reflection of light, but also considers the imperfections inherent in optical perception of the piece. It “embodies Leonardo’s longstanding preoccupation with the science of optics and acoustics…portraying…the outward movement” (Marani, 2003).


Fig.10. The 1498 painting housed in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

In his notebooks, da Vinci describes the figures commenting, “another lays his hand on the table and is looking. Another blows [air out of] his mouth. Another leans forward to see the speaker shading his eyes with his hand. Another draws back behind the one who leans forward, and sees the speaker between the wall and the man who is leaning”. He further states, “… all bodies, in proportion as they are nearer to, or farther from, the source of light, will produce longer or shorter derived shadows”. Thus, Vinci’s arrangement of figures is translated into an interpretation of the movement of light in the painting. From the state of the painting today, after numerous washings and restorations, it is impossible to understand the original atmospheric effect. A close observation of the painting will show that the painting is mainly lit by the three columns of open spaces behind, as in Madonna of the Rocks. The three dimensional dialogue of light and shade is present emphatically to present a pictorial reality. Judas is seen in a shadow, and Christ is the central figure and the point of illumination too. The whole crepuscular mis-en-scene recalls the setting of the text- dusk. Hence, to some art historians and critics the correct natural lighting is essential for viewing the painting.

The correct natural lighting is considered to be late afternoon or early evening, when the light would come from above and the left and a leave one-thirds of the canvas in shadows to the viewer’s left. A different lighting would disturb the balance. Any viewer would be able to understand that the colour on the left is of greater strength, so is the presence of shadow. On the other hand, the right side of the canvas is much softer causing the draperies to recede into a silvery grey. John Shearman writes that the technique of increasing plasticity and colour in the weakly lit part was probably borrowed by Vinci from Masaccio and extended to the part of the wall that is actually in shadow. Thus the gesticulations are more emphasized on the right side of the painting. The distribution of light and shade is to keep with the original setting of the refectory where the light from the afternoon sun entered through the high windows on the western side and fell on the opposite wall.

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting seems to be classical and reposed, the disciples radiating away from Christ in an almost mathematical symmetry. Although there is a perspective involved, the scene appears as flat in terms of stage setting. Vinci attempted to draw the various emotions and reactions of his disciples to Jesus’ news that one of them would betray him yet it appears as a beautiful, calm rendition of the meal. Shearman observes that the chromatic effect from one side to another appears perfect if seen in natural light, but there is absence of articulated patterns in its distribution as there is in Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper, as the colour planes are not unified by repetition. Probably over the years the colours have lost their particularity and original shade and tone, yet in the picture there is homogeneity, a spontaneous harmony and tonal equality. Most of the figures in the painting wear blue. Also, there is red in contrast to it. The evenness of red is paired with the enveloping blue, the ‘lustre of life’ with the ‘lustre of soul’ in the words of Rudolf Steiner. Christ is dressed in red and draped in blue while John is dressed in blue and draped in red. This is a deliberate attempt to bring John even closer to Christ, emphasizing on his position next to Christ. To the right side Philip, along with John and James is seen to be wearing a red cloak and blue robe. Very deftly Vinci uses lesser tones of red to keep up with the play of light. The shade of red becomes weak further to the right and disappears into the reddish-brown robe of Thaddeus and pinkish red of Simon’s cloak. Evenness in distribution of colour is seen also in the other appearances of blue and green in their lighter and darker nuances.

The very same painting in the hands of Tintoretto some hundred years later in 1594 becomes highly dramatic and stylised as angels with halos of light share canvas space with the humans against the dark background. A comparison of both the paintings reveals the development of artistic styles through the Renaissance. The human figures in Tintoretto’s rendition are overwritten by the appearances of ghostly beings as light and darkness is dramatically tortured. This sets the tone for Baroque art.


Fig.11, The Last Supper, Jacopo Tintoretto. Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

The setting is a cavern like room with strange dramatic use of perspective. The tiles on the floor can be understood owing to the contrasts of light and dark. Both floor and ceiling seem to recede into the distance, another effect of the exploitation of light and shadow. Light against dark, dramatic perspective, confusion, ambiguity, grandeur, exaggerated emotions and highly idealized portrayal of figures highlight the painting. The figures are portrayed against a background of intense darkness but the figures themselves are illuminated by a bright searching light, which remains the sole source of illumination in the picture, giving it a three dimensional effect. This can be achieved by means of harsh and exquisite control of chiaroscuro- an effect that Caravaggio introduced as “Tenebrism” (Latin ‘tenebrae’- darkness).

On close observation it will be found that the lightest part of the painting is Christ’s head as the halo emanating from it is the brightest. Christ’s head is heavily contrasted against those of the disciples who also have a glow around their heads. Along with the Apostles there are secondary characters as well. The angels too shimmer with light and everything appears to recede into the background, especially the table that vanishes into space in a steep diagonal. Another source of light is the lamp at the top left of the picture. No external light is to be found in the painting, suggesting that perhaps Tintoretto on purpose deprived the painting of a natural light to make it look like a ‘night picture’, in line with Mannerist tendencies. Thus light appears to come into obscurity from both the light on the ceiling and Jesus’ Aureole. Scenes illuminated by Christ’s halo are, again, a recurrent trope in Christian art. The darkness of paintings deepened from the late 16th century, with points of illumination being a real source of light (sun or sky), a torch or an oil lamp (as is the case in Tintoretto’s rendition of the meal). In most of religious painting the place and time of the painting is undecipherable, thus keeping the viewer in the dark about whether it is day or night and if the painting is set outdoors or indoors. The source of light is mostly invisible- either external, projecting only a shaft of brightness. Or it is internal, within the picture, emanating from The Child or The Holy Spirits or the angels. Keeping in mind Lomazzo’s observations, the painting is thus lit by the Metaphysical or Divine light. In any case, whether the light shines from a candle or a lamp, (Fig. 12) it carries some symbolic meaning. It could signify ignorance or spiritual illumination, while light emanated from Christ’s halo is definitely the holy light signifying knowledge, salvation and the likes of such religious connotation (Fig.13). Maria Rzepinska writes that these symbolic meanings of light can be can be perceived only because the light is contrasted against extreme darkness, the intensity of which accounts for the degree of intensity of light and for the diversity of its variants.


Fig.12, The Evening School, Gerrit Dou. This scene is illuminated by the light of the candle and lamp, with no other external light present.


Fig.13, Salvator Mundi, Titian. Christ’s halo illuminates a portion of the canvas.

Tintoretto staged his stories like theatre directors. The employment of unreal, stage-like lighting with dramatized effects of lights and shadow, and highly independent perspectives, daring foreshortenings, altogether distance the representation from real life. Religious scene is transformed into an enthralling scenario. The colours used in the painting are overridden by the techniques of lighting, though the red and blue of Christ’s and other disciples’ clothing can be fairly understood. Since most of the picture is in shadows, very dark shades of colours have been used in the foreground whereas the women carrying plates in the distance have a weaker shade of grey in their clothing. The figures to the extreme right of the painting are barely visible, the colours incomprehensible as they are totally shrouded in darkness with bare minimum lighting to attest to their presence. In contrast to Leonardo da Vinci’s balanced, symmetrical frontal composition, Tintoretto’s pictorial space in given dynamic quality with radically asymmetrical composition and articulation, linear arabesques linked to a forceful plasticity. He introduces a new conception of spatial depth and achieves the “spectacular”. In Leonardo’s painting Jesus was human and divine at the same time, as described in Christian faith. This peaceful co-existence falls apart in Tintoretto’s painting as a lot of tension, hustle and bustle is seen in the foreground with the theological story looming largely in the depths of the painting. Owing to the lighting and the vitality of the pictorial structure the two levels are united while the barely visible band of angels above the whole scene lends compositional equilibrium to an extent. Helen Gardner writes in her Art Through the Ages, “The ability of this dramatic scene to engage viewers was well in keeping with Counter-Reformation ideals and the Catholic Church’s belief in the didactic nature of religious art.”

The specific structuring of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, in which shadow and darkness prove to be as important as light, brings in a new aesthetics. This concept, if not entirely unknown previously, was never dealt with in the manner in which the 15th, 16th and 17th century artists did. Early techniques of chiaroscuro drew on traditions of illuminated manuscripts or miniatures of the late Roman Imperial manuscripts on purple parchment. Appolodoros of 5th century Athens is ascribed to the first usage of shadow-painting in ancient Greece called “skiagraphia”. Very primitive form of shading is found in Byzantine art and then the West refined the technique in the late Middle Ages. Compositional chiaroscuro gained a considerable impetus from the visions of the Nativity of Jesus of Saint Bridget of Sweden, a very popular mystic in northern Europe. She described infant Jesus as emitting light- a phenomenon that has repeatedly been portrayed in religious art. After Saint Bridget’s claim, chiaroscuro became a very important technique in the subsequent years. Hugo van der Goes also used the holy light as the primary source of illumination, as a result relying on chiaroscuro. But in European painting the technique was first used in its full potential by Leonardo da Vinci in his Adoration of Magi (1481). In Michelangelo’s paintings too bodies and figures seem to be realistic, as if they are just about to move. A classic example of optical illusion created by light, shade and perspective is The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. The painting’s eyes seem to follow the viewer irrespective of the direction from which he views it. No matter how the painting is seen- standing parallel to it or diagonally, even upside down, the eyes seem to look directly back at the viewer. This technique called the ‘gazing eyes’ is obtained by immensely skillful mastery of colour, perspective, use of planes, and most importantly- shadows. Meanwhile, Mannerist tendencies had already crept into Michelangelo and Raphael’s art by the early 16th century.

It is common knowledge that the treatment of darkness reached its most dramatic and exaggerated form in the hands of Caravaggio, yet it would be imprudent to term all of Mannerist and Baroque art as an influence of Caravaggio. Referring back to Maria Rzepinska, it can be said that Caravaggio gave a forcible expression to a certain trend in European art that introduced darkness, inseparable from light, as an iconic and psychological factor of utmost importance. That Caravaggio had immense influence over contemporary and later artists is proved from the presence of a school of painters called the “Caravaggisti” (the likes of Jusepe Ribera, Battistello Caracciolo, Gerrit van Honthorst, Rembrandt and others), who had their loyalties with Caravaggism, particularly because its naturalism made it a perfect vehicle for Catholic Counter-Reformation Art (Fig.14). Tenebrism now became the dominant technique in the art of the late 16th and early 17th century and continued well into the Baroque period. Like the Renaissance, Baroque too developed outside Europe, in the Low Countries of the Netherlands, Holland and Spain. The end of the 17th century saw a decline in the Baroque style and also Italy as France became the new European power. As a result, a new and contrasting style of decorative art emerged, known as Rococo. The technique was somewhat maintained by painters like Fragonard, Watteau and the likes, until Expressionism made its way into the artistic scene.


Fig. 14, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt.

In conclusion, I would like to quote da Vinci again- “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” As Maria Rzepinska observes, the issue of light and darkness was not purely artistic in character, as it penetrated into the intellectual life of the times- religion, philosophy and natural science. The Renaissance and the Baroque period can be said to be the only time in European history and culture in which the phenomena of shadow and darkness aroused so much speculation and observation. Whether this issue had any importance earlier is not known. In the Renaissance, astronomy gained new theories and explanations; eclipses and phases of the moon were studied. This might be seen to be in concurrence with the development of the Tenebrist tendencies where darkness was used as a positive value. The phenomenon once associated with negation, evil and bad was now equated with light, the symbol of everything good. Darkness, in contrast with light, was seen to bring out the illumination and magnificence of light. The religious, cosmic, metaphysical, philosophical, intellectual, existential symbolism of light and darkness was expressed wholly through the subject matter and techniques of paintings by Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque artists such as- Hugo van der Goes, Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Georges de la Tour, El Greco, Boulogne, Caravaggio and other Spanish artists, going well beyond geographic and scholastic boundaries.



  • Rzepinska, Maria. “Tenebrism in Baroque Painting and Its ideological Background.” Artibus et Historiae 7:13(1986): 91-112. http://www. (accessed November 18, 2015).
  • Shearman, John. “Leonardo’s Colour and Chiaroscuro”.Zeitschrift fur Kunstgeschichte 25:1(1962): 13-47. (accessed November 17, 2015).
  • Da Vinci, Leonardo. “Notebooks” (accessed November 18, 2015).
  • Ladwein, Michael. “Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper: A Cosmic Drama and an Act of Redemption.” (accessed November 18, 2015).
  • Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
  • Panofsky,Erwin. “Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art”. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksells, 1960.
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  • Marani, P. “Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings”. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (2003).
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