16 Mar


Caravaggio did several self-portraits during his lifetime, this is one of ’em. David with the head of Goliath. He’s Goliath. Notice the appropriately large size of the head. That’s a photoshop effect.

By Caravaggio’s time the uses of mirrors and lenses to capture the infuriating details of objects and patterns had been on-going more than a century. But far more primary in the practice of the craft was draughtsmanship. Before the use of optics there was geometry and long before that observation. The human body had been formulised as a mathematical diagram:


This is not simply the golden ratio of the human body but of everything else. It figures, the thing evokes a Mandelbrot set.

Caravaggio’s not known to’ve made a single drawing. There’s no drawing under his paint. Instead there are tiny little notches on the outlines of the figures. He wasn’t an artist in the sense of ‘one who draws’. He was a film director. He set up a scene, positioned the actors and used a lens to project that image directly onto canvas. At the end of the day they’d quit and come back tomorrow. He could reposition them because of the notches. A labour saving device. It’s a wonder they didn’t stop drawing then.

But they didn’t, and they got better.

Caravaggio was mocked by his rivals because he always needed the subject in front of him. They knew what he was doing. Still even those who did draw used his technique:


Rembrandt was the protestant North’s answer to Caravaggio. At the beginning of the 17th century the break between protestants and Catholics was permanent and the two side entered into a set of rivalries one of which was culture. The Catholic Church cleaned up house at the Council of Trent and set about prescribing images that glorified its theology.

In the newly prosperous and republican Netherlands the answer came from a thousand merchant craftsmen one of whom is possibly the only rival to Michelangelo in the history of art. And art’s only rival to to Shakespeare. Rembrandt von Rijn:

Rembrandt also drew a series of self-portraits. Unlike Caravaggio, living in the Italian-Catholic milieu of strict hierarchical tradition, Rembrandt was able to make them plainly and explicitly such. Whereas Caravaggio courted controversy by casting rather unsavoury commoners (including himself) as the mythological beings of Biblical and Greek-Roman lore, Rembrandt used self-portrait to examine himself thru life as he aged.

Above we see the fashionable young enfant terrible; Rembrandt in his 20s. By the end of his career he wasn’t fashionable anymore. His style had become markedly messier. He was sued by a client because a portrait was not enough of a likeness. An ambitious civic commission, one Rembrandt thought his best work, was rejected as sloppy mess.

As he grew older he preferred simply to draw without reference to geometry or the lens. There was, he realized well before his time, a lie inherent in traditional techniques of accurate rendering. The truth you saw was the truth you draw observing directly.

Looking in, not just at.

rembrandt self-portrait 60s


3 Responses to “THE TRUTH IN A FACE”

  1. Peter Patton March 19, 2011 at 6:40 am #

    It really is fascinating just how much mathematical patterning there is nature, which predates and survives any human genius. The Mandlebrot set is a similar deviation from the Golden Ratio, as the Fibonacci spiral. A first year Maths lecturer declared to the class that he became a Mathematician, after he discovered its power in unlocking and revealed “all of god’s beauty”. ‘Fair enough’, I thought, ‘but is it on the exam’?

    After teaching us the Fibonacci number sequence, he want on to teach us how it works in nature – how trees branch, and even artichokes! While it is used in modern architecture there is evidence (Assyrians and Aztecs, I think from memory) of human structures built for efficiency using Fibonacci Spiral.

    I don’t know anything Carravagio/Rembrandt’s education, but if they did a BA, they would have mastered a level of geometry and opticks (as Aristotle and Newton spelt it), exceeded only by a 0.1% of a modern BA graduate.

    It really does make me side with Plato that the universe is one giant geometry project, pushed and prodded by number theory.

    • AC Stewart March 21, 2011 at 7:29 am #

      The trouble with trying to reduce the cosmos to maths is that at very large and very small scales it tends to break down.

      I hadn’t thought about the Fibonacci sequence.

  2. Peter Patton March 26, 2011 at 3:44 am #

    Does it really? As a Roman Catholic, you will love the beauty with which the cosmos, astronomy, physics, and God are all explained mathematically in Kepler. It really is a breathtaking work of not only mathematical ability, but also of an audacious imagination, which still manages to place the Xian god at the centre of it all.

    Plato meets the Vatican!

    If you haven’t already, you must read Mysterium Cosmographicum. Even if one is not so mathematically inclined, Wikipedia and similar sources convey the beauty and the math more than adequately.

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