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Religious Themes in the Paintings of Caravaggio and El Greco

Updated on July 5, 2012
El Greco: The Modena Triptych
El Greco: The Modena Triptych | Source

El Greco

El Greco was a mannerist painting from Spain. His scenes were visionary, bursting with color, light, and shadows. His works were full of “burning religious and spiritual incandescence (Fleming, 366).” While I’m sure the book does not do justice to his work, it is still captivating. He draws you into the paintings and the people within them seem to be moving and feeling. El Greco did a lot of work for the Church, especially after he fell out of favor with King Philip. El Greco seems to fall back to the classical appearance of his religious works, with the holy and religious above the plain of the mortal. In “Martyrdom of St. Maurice and Theban Legion,” El Greco takes a page from Masacchio’s “Tribute Money” and shows a play in several stages, moving from plane to plane within the work.

Le Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holopherne
Le Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holopherne | Source


Caravaggio’s religious works were much different than El Greco’s. First, the appearance is in all ways different. Caravaggio’s style is not at all manneristic, being baroque in all aspects. His religious works emphasis normal, every-day settings in which amazing things happen. In his “Calling of St. Matthew,” we see St. Matthew sitting in a tavern, apparently in the dark, until Jesus comes for him. The light streams in from an unknown place, illuminating his face, while fingers, including St. Matthew’s own, points at him, marking him as the central figure in the work. Caravaggio used light and dark to draw viewers into his works, and from the images in the text, it seems that he preferred dark colors that would show the contrast of the light much better than the light and bright colors that El Greco used.


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