Death of the Virgin
12’ 1 ½” x 8’.
Oil on canvas
For Sanata Maria della Scala, Trastevere, Rome. Now in Louvre, Paris In 1605, Laerzio Cherubini commissioned Caravaggio to paint an altarpiece for his family’s chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome. The chapel was dedicated to the Transit of the Virgin. There was a particular decorum for the depiction of such a scene: the Virgin giving a pious gesture, some sort of ascension of Her soul, and clouds of angels. Caravaggio disregarded all of these rules and painted a bloated, inappropriately adorned Mary as if she were an ordinary mortal. For these reasons, the Carmelite clergy of the church rejected it. From there, it fell into the hands of the duke of Mantua, Charles I of England, a bank collector, Louis XIV, then to the Louvre in 1793 where it is today (Moir 106).
Caravaggio’s dead Virgin offended its viewers. She appeared very dead, bloated in fact, with so hint of miraculousness about her. She has no energy whatsoever to raise a hand in gesture. Her bare feet and ankles are uncovered. She is in a very poor setting. Helen Langdon argues that this emphasis on naturalism and poverty was Caravaggio’s way of refuting the Protestant attacks on the cult of the Virgin. He shows a very human Mary, the poor mother of Christ. Langdon even suggests the Virgin’s swollen belly represents her miraculous pregnancy (even though she was not pregnant when she died) (248-250). The Virgin’s resemblance Caravaggio’s lover and prostitute, Lena probably distracted contemporary viewers of this painting from understanding the real meaning behind the naturalism (Lena had drowned in a river, so Caravaggio was able to use her dead body as a model). But it was merely characteristic of Caravaggio to paint from life and to paint incredibly naturalistic figures and situations.
The lack of divinity presented in this composition is also a reason the original patrons rejected it. This appears to be an ordinary earthly death. The distinct emotions on every figure’s face add a dynamic quality to the grief portrayed. However moving it is, this can be any woman’s death. Vittorio Sgarbi made an interesting point when he explained the copper pot in the foreground of the painting. In contemporary times, a copper pot was used to wash the corpse. However, the Virgin Mary is believed to have ascended to Heaven in full body form. This relates her death to that of any human being. This could also symbolize distrust in the resurrection, according to Sgarbi, further making this painting unfavorable to the Carmelites (134).
The story really begins over a hundred years earlier, when the Papacy began to reap the effects of centuries of compromise. The Great Schism saw two, even three individuals claiming to be the Pope, and the Council of Constance in the early fifteenth century saw a power struggle between Bishops and Pope. Combined, they hindered Papal government and harmed the reputation of the Church in the eyes of the laity. They led early sixteenth century popes to resist reform and bolster their own position by using their spiritual power, along with war and diplomacy, to become territorial princes in Italy, building their bank accounts on the way. In England, the same period saw John Wyclif, an Oxford academic, anticipate the arguments of Martin Luther over a century later, and also produce the first English Bible. Piers Plowman, a popular poetic satire, attacked abuses in the entire church, from Pope to priest. But nothing happened. Wyclif's supporters, the Lollards, were driven underground after their failed rebellion of 1414, and remained a persecuted minority for another hundred years. The church carried on unabashed and proud, selling offices and indulgences, a political plaything for princes and a useful source of income for second sons and men on the make. And forget celibacy.
The wider picture
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