On the website of the Meadows Museum of Art I found this sentence: “The Ecstasy of Saint Francis from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is an excellent example of the artist’s mature style, characterized by dramatic tenebrism, lively paint handling, and by the expressiveness of his compositions’ figures.” Hmm. What, you wonder, might tenebrism be? It’s an art-history term, and here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s article on the subject:

Tenebrism, from the Italian tenebroso (murky), also called dramatic illumination, is a style of painting using very pronounced chiaroscuro, where there are violent contrasts of light and dark and darkness becomes a dominating feature of the image. Caravaggio, a Baroque artist, is generally credited with the invention of the style, although this technique was used much earlier by various artists, such as Albrecht Dürer.

The word tenebrism is based on Latin tenebrae, a plural that means ‘shadows.’ The American Heritage Dictionary says that in Catholicism, and in capitalized form, Tenebrae is ‘The office of matins and lauds sung on the last three days of Holy Week, with a ceremony of candles.’

The Latin adjective corresponding to tenebrae was tenebrōsus, from which we have the fancy adjective tenebroso/tenebrous. Spanish speakers will recognize Latin tenebrae as the source of tinieblas ‘shadows.’ Spanish occasionally uses the singular tiniebla, but the plural form far overshadows the singular. Joan Corominas points out that in older Spanish the form had been tiniebra, but influence from the etymologically (though not semantically) unrelated niebla ‘mist, haze, fog’ caused the change to tiniebla.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgettesullins
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 11:23:57

    hmmm…this makes me think of El Greco whose life coincided with that of Caravaggio.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 22, 2014 @ 12:46:31

      Ah yes, the Spanish teacher’s thoughts would turn from Caravaggio to El Greco. A few years ago I began to wonder why Domenikos Theotokopoulos’s nickname was El Greco rather than El Griego.


  2. georgettesullins
    Feb 22, 2014 @ 13:16:35

    You too?


  3. shoreacres
    Feb 23, 2014 @ 06:52:51

    I thought of El Greco, too, but first I thought about Tenebrae. In the Lutheran tradition (and perhaps others) Catholic practice has been changed slightly. The Tenebrae service now is a traditional Good Friday observance. As an assortment of scripture passages is read, candles are extinguished until the church is in darkness.

    This morning, niebla would be a good word to have at hand. The fog’s so thick there won’t be many shadows when the sun rises.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 23, 2014 @ 10:49:57

      I hadn’t heard of that Lutheran practice of extinguishing candles until the church is dark, but it makes sense and sounds dramatic, especially if there isn’t much light from outside.

      Once again the nature photographer envies you your dense fog, something that rarely comes to Austin.


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If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.

©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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