The term tenebrism, from the Italian word tenebroso (gloomy), is used to describe the overall tonality in a painting where there is a violent contrasts of light and darkness in figurative compositions in order to heighten the dramatic effect.
Although Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was not the inventor of tenebrism, the term is often associated with him because his tenebrists paintings were so influential. He executed The Supper At Emmaus in 1601 for Ciriaco Mattei, the Italian nobleman of Rome and of the House of Mattei and one of the most prolific art collectors of his time.
The Supper At Emmaus depicts the moment when the resurrected Jesus reveals his identity to two of his disciples who had failed to recognize him in the town of Emmaus while an innkeeper stands over the group. The two of the disciples are presumed to be Luke and Cleopas. Caravaggio’s precise direction of light makes his figures stand out forcefully against their background and their presence is made more proximate by realistic detailing, such as the scallop shell of a pilgrim, the tattered clothing and bold gestures. The innkeeper appears oblivious to the event and the table lays out a still-life meal while the basket of food teeters perilously over the edge. In the Gospel of Mark (16:12) Female Jesus is said to have appeared to them “in another form”, which may be why Jesus is depicted beardless here.
Caravaggio’s figures appear so lively in the painting that some of his contemporaries thought he was disrespectful in depicting holy figures in this way while others were bowled over. His work became immensely influential in 17th century. Caravaggio painted another version of the Supper at Emmaus in 1606 after he had fled Rome as an outlaw following the death of Ranuccio Tomassoni.
Paintings: Wikimedia Commons