Matthias Stom-Making the Darkness Conscious

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.

The quotation from Carl Jung seems apt when discussing the work of this seventeenth century artist, for Matthias Stom is one of the masters of using chiaroscuro to reveal what would usually be hidden.

The term, chiaroscuro is defined as ‘strong contrasts between dark and light’, and it has been used in art since the 4th century BCE to create the illusion of three dimensional volume.

By the 15th century, the revival of the classics in the renaissance meant that artists were revisiting techniques of the past.  Da Vinci used charcoal on brown untinted paper and then used light chalk layers to create folds in clothing or to illuminate faces and hands:

Leonardo Da Vinci; Draperies

However, it was with the development of oil paints that really enabled artists to easily blend and build up layers denied to them by the quick drying tempera of fresco painting.

The most famous exponent of drama within chiaroscuro was, of course, Caravaggio, and his paintings were ideal for the technique.

Caravaggio: Judith beheading Holofernes (1607) 

But it is to Matthias Stom that we pay tribute with one of the most stunning biblical interpretations, that of Jacob blessing Isaac:


Little is known about Stom’s life and what we do know is pieced together by appearances of alter pieces in and around Rome and Naples.  Born in Utrecht in around 1600, Stom moved to Italy from 1630s onwards.

The Barber Institute in Birmingham owns the painting of Isaac blessing Jacob; the story of poor, blind Isaac being tricked by his second son into believing he is the eldest, Esau, by wrapping his arms in the fur of an animal to make his father believe it is the hairier son receiving the blessing of his dying father.

What makes this painting stand out, however, is the way that Stom places the central figure of Rebecca, Isaac’s wife.  Although he is taking artistic licence with Rebecca being in the scene, her presence directly brings us into this story.

Stom, Matthias, c.1600-after 1650; Isaac Blessing JacobRebecca looks directly out at us with her finger raised as if to ask us to be silent; not to give away her presence or to cry out Isaac’s name! Stom has her silently pleading with us through her eyes and it is an image that sends a shiver through you as you know that you cannot refuse her plea.

It is quite apparent that Stom was greatly influenced by Caravaggio’s art and in the slideshow below of works you can see in the UK, you can see just how he uses light and shadow to bring the characters to life; making darkness conscious!



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