Caravaggio Picture Study Aid and Art Prints

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio Picture Study -

To read more about Charlotte Mason picture study and to see the other Picture Study Aids I offer, click here.

All works, no matter what or by whom painted, are nothing but bagatelles and childish trifles… unless they are made and painted from life, and there can be nothing… better than to follow nature.


The history of the art world includes no shortage of tumultuous personalities, including Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, and Edvard Munch. Each century has its own unique characters, but one from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century surpasses quite a few of them in his eccentricities: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, more commonly known as Caravaggio.

His tempestuous life began in Milan in 1571, but he took his name from Caravaggio, the town from which his ancestors came and where his family relocated when he was young. He was exposed to the world of art while still a boy when he worked with his father at construction sites in the area, mixing glues that were used by the Fresco painters. Art historians also conjecture that he became familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie while he was a boy.

He spent the rest of his life pursuing the use of realism in his art, preferring to work with live models (rather than statues which were commonly used at the time) and painting as much from nature as he could. His oeuvre includes religious scenes, portrait painting, themes from mythology, and still lifes, which he painted to earn money before he gained wider recognition.

His parents died while he was still young, and after apprenticeships in his adolescent years, he spent his early adult years as a young artist in Rome, where he was exposed to famous works of art by painters such as Michelangelo Buonarroti. While there, he emerged from the stereotypical starving artist beginnings by gaining a reputation for being highly talented and eventually was sought after for many commissions.

He also had many run-ins with the law, and his time there ended with the murder of a friend after he lost a tennis match (and the 10 scudi he bet on it), which caused him to flee the great city before later being exonerated by a Catholic cardinal. His flight from Rome led him to Malta, where he spent two years completing various commissions while vying for a place in the prestigious Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, into which he was later knighted.

During the later years of his life, he completed more commissions in different parts of the Italian peninsula before being severely wounded in a tavern brawl in Naples in 1609. After recovering there for several months and learning of his exoneration, he decided to begin the journey back to Rome. En route, he was mistaken for another man and jailed by Spanish authorities in Tuscany. When he was finally released, all of his possessions were gone, and art historians have conjectured that he contracted malaria while he was in jail. He wandered along the beach until he made his way to Porto Ercole where he died of fever on July 18, 1610.

Caravaggio’s work is known for its distinctive style and dramatic use of light, or chiaroscuro, which was so widely admired (and envied) that an entire group of artists is named after him: the Caravaggisti. Giovanni Pietro Bellori, an Italian biographer of artists who lived just after Caravaggio wrote about him:

…[Caravaggio] was becoming better known every day for the coloring that he was introducing, not sweet and with few hues as before, but intensified throughout with bold dark passages, as he made considerable use of black to give relief to the forms. And he carried this manner of working so far that he never brought any of his figures out into open sunlight, but found a way of setting them in the dusky air of a closed room, taking light from high up that fell straight down on the principal part of the body, and leaving the remainder in shadow in order to gain force through the intensity of light and dark. So then the painters in Rome were taken with this novelty, and the young ones in particular flocked to him and praised him alone as the unique imitator of nature; looking upon his works as miracles, they vied with each other in following him, unclothing their models and raising their sources of light; and in copying from life everyone readily found a master and examples in the piazza and on the street, without paying any further heed to studies and teachings. As this facility attracted others, only the older painters, accustomed to artistic practice, were dismayed by this novel study of nature; and they never ceased denouncing Caravaggio and his style, spreading it about that he did not know how to come out of the cellar, and that in his poverty of invention and disegno, without decorum and without art, he painted all his figures in one light and on one plane without graduating them: these accusations, however, did nothing to slow the flight of his fame.

Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl)

Caravaggio Picture Study Aid and Art Prints

I’m happy to announce that I have a new Picture Study Aid covering the art of Caravaggio, along with the accompanying fine art prints, now available! Included in this 25-page Picture Study Aid is a summary of the life and artistic inspirations of Italian Baroque painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), key topics for seven of his works (see below), printable versions of the pieces covered in the PDF version, and a brief discussion about Charlotte Mason’s ideas and methods for implementing picture study at different ages.

The pieces discussed are:

  • The Cardsharps (ca. 1595 – Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)
  • Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1598 – Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, Madrid, Spain)
  • The Calling of Saint Matthew (ca. 1599-1600 – Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome)
  • Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601 – Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome)
  • The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (ca. 1601-1602 – Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany)
  • Supper at Emmaus (1601 – National Gallery, London)
  • Saint Jerome (ca. 1605-1606 – Galleria Borghese, Rome)

You can also find books for further reading about Caravaggio in the Living Art Book Archive. (For now, it is limited, but I hope to add to the list as I explore more books covering his work.)

I include a brief overview of Charlotte Mason picture study at the beginning of the file; however, I have also written posts here on the blog about why it is important and how we do it in our home and homeschool co-op.

You can get your copy at the link at the end of the post!


This guide is by no means an exhaustive analysis or study of each piece, which is intentional. I tried to keep it all very simple in the spirit of there being:

…no talk about schools of painting, little about style; consideration of these matters comes in later life, the first and most important thing is to know the pictures themselves. As in a worthy book we leave the author to tell his own tale, so do we trust a picture to tell its tale through the medium the artist gave it. In the region of art as else-where we shut out the middleman.


Instead, this Picture Study Aid is meant to offer basic information about the artists as well as ready answers should your student ask about a particular aspect of a piece and the explanation isn’t readily evident. Ms. Mason emphasized not focusing on strict academic discourse when doing picture study but rather simply exposing students to the art itself:

His education should furnish him with whole galleries of mental pictures, pictures by great artists old and new;––…––in fact, every child should leave school with at least a couple of hundred pictures by great masters hanging permanently in the halls of his imagination, to say nothing of great buildings, sculpture, beauty of form and colour in things he sees. Perhaps we might secure at least a hundred lovely landscapes too,––sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight nights. At any rate he should go forth well furnished because imagination has the property of magical expansion, the more it holds the more it will hold.

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