TEST CASE 4: Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus 1596 -1601

On pp. 111 - 124 of Hockney's book, he discusses in some detail Caravaggio's supposed use of optics. Hockney sees, in Caravaggio's earlier paintings, evidence for the use of a concave mirror (as in the Sick Bacchus of 1594) and then subsequently, in his later paintings, of a convex lens (for example in the Bacchus of 1595-6). Hockney's insights certainly illuminate Caravaggio's paintings, without, of course, detracting in the least from Caravaggio's undoubted genius or from the quality of the paintings themselves. Reaction to Hockney's insights has often been highly critical because Caravaggio holds a unique position in Western Art and, correspondingly, he is not one to be explained away. In reality, however, through understanding we appreciate all the more.

Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (c. 1600). St Peter's right hand is relationally larger than his left. Is this a result of an error caused by Caravaggio's use of camera obscura technology?
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Susan Grundy's essay introduces Caravaggio's use of optics in his dramatic painting Supper at Emmaus (1596-1601). There is a dramatic foreshortening of the right arm of Christ (center) and of the left arm of St. Peter (right). But St. Peter's distant right hand is larger than his close left one where the reverse would be true for a freehand sketch. One obvious explanation is that Caravaggio was tracing a projected image and refocusing, by adjusting the position of the lens and canvas. Refocusing alters the magnification and that could account for the relative sizes of St. Peter's hands. Stork showed that this explanation would not work for a concave mirror but, as Susan Grundy's essay points out, Caravaggio was using a lens at the time that Supper at Emmaus was painted.

Anomalous features in Caravaggio's paintings show evidence of the tracing of projected images and of the use of mirrors and lenses to create the images. In The Card Players, the cheat looks not, as he must, at the hand of cards held by the card player but behind the back of the card player. Changes in the placing of people in the picture can be achieved by refocusing. Susan Grundy's essay also points to the distortion of perspective in the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, a celebrated follower of Caravaggio. Use of optical devices provides the simplest explanation for anomalies in Caravaggio's work.


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