Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

The Power of Light and Dark

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.




Born in Viterbo, Italy, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi moved to Rome to begin his studies at a well-established art academy. In Rome, Cavarozzi was influenced by the naturalistic style of the master painter, known simply as Caravaggio (1571–1610), who put great emphasis on the human figure and the dramatic use of light. In 1617 Cavarozzi traveled to Spain, where he encountered the rich color palette of Spanish painting, and where he is also credited with introducing Spanish painters to Caravaggism, a term named for Caravaggio’s widely copied style of painting. When Cavarozzi returned to Rome in 1619 his own mature style had emerged from the influence of Caravaggio and Spanish painting. Although the figures that Cavarozzi painted are more restrained than the boldly dramatic and active figures of Caravaggio, he continued depicting the human face and figure in Caravaggio’s naturalistic style and using dramatic light to emphasize his subjects.

Set against a dark background, a light at the upper left of the scene illuminates the quiet and pensive Madonna as she solemnly holds the Christ Child on her knees. The infant reaches for St. Catherine of Alexandria, who is cropped out of this rendition of Cavarozzi’s painting, but can be seen in his earlier work, the Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine. In this painting, two angels hold a jeweled crown over the head of Mary, representing that she is the Queen of Heaven. The rich burgundy of the Virgin’s velvet sleeve, the metallic blue of her satin wrap, and the rosy warm hue of skin tones are an influence from Cavarozzi’s time in Spain, where this painting was most likely completed.

This painting exemplifies the style of tenebrism that was introduced and used prolifically by Caravaggio in the 17th century. Tenebrism is the blending of extreme darks and lights to create a dramatic effect that is vividly seen in Virgin and Child with Angels and was the favored style of the Counter-Reformation Church to teach Catholic doctrine to the common man. As exemplified in this painting, the background is extremely dark, which makes the brightly lit figures in the foreground appear even more three-dimensional. The figures in Virgin and Child with Angels are also representative of Caravaggio’s naturalistic style, which rejected the classical ideal figure in favor of a more realistic and therefore more convincing depiction of the common man. In religious painting, the dramatic use of tenebrism, combined with a naturalistic style, proved to be a powerful tool for invoking awe and faith in the viewer.

The Virgin and Child with Angels is one of several paintings Cavarozzi modeled from his original painting, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine, in Madrid. The Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine depicts St. Catherine kneeling beside the Christ Child with her hand over her heart in admiration. St. Catherine was rumored to be spiritually wed to Christ through a mystical marriage after her conversion to Christianity. The mystical marriage is part of the early Catholic belief that Christ presents himself in a vision and becomes “wedded” to the soul, and a ring is presented in a ceremony attended by the blessed Virgin, angels, and saints. There are numerous versions of the legend, but historians doubt that St. Catherine was a real person because she is not mentioned in any historical documentation before the 9th century.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider