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Sharon E. Fox, Thomas J. McKeeff, Frank Tong; A perceptual basis for the lighting of Caravaggio's faces. Journal of Vision 2004;4(8):215. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/4.8.215.
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Caravaggio, a leader of the Baroque art movement, is well known for his departure from the Renaissance ideals of balance and restraint in the portrayal of lighting and facial expression. He often relied on a single light source to reveal contrasting regions of harsh light and complete shadow in the intensely expressive faces which he painted. Our analyses of his paintings revealed that Caravaggio had an overwhelming preference to light subjects from the left side (89% left lit), relative to the viewer's perspective. We hypothesized that this unique combination of harsh lighting and a left-sided source may lead to the enhanced perception of emotion in faces. A behavioral experiment was conducted to test this hypothesis. On each trial, subjects were presented with a normal and a mirror-reversed version of one of Caravaggio's faces on a computer screen (randomly chosen to appear on the top or bottom), and had to choose the more emotional face. All 20 subjects showed a consistent bias in perceiving left-lit faces as more emotional than right-lit faces, irrespective of the direction of the face. We also tested if the lighting preference would generalize to sculptures that were harshly lit like Caravaggio's paintings or diffusely lit in a Renaissance style. Subjects showed the same left-sided bias for harshly lit sculptures and no bias for diffusely lit sculptures. Subjects also judged harshly lit sculptures as more emotional than diffusely lit sculptures. Our findings reveal a perceptual basis for Caravaggio's preference to light his figures harshly from the left side—both harsh lighting and left-sided lighting seem to interact to maximize the emotional efficacy of both paintings and sculptures. Modern cognitive neuroscience studies have shown a left visual field/right hemisphere bias in the processing of both faces and emotions. Our findings reveal that Caravaggio tapped into these perceptual biases, whether consciously or unknowingly, more than four hundred years ago.
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