Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is one of the most famous European painters. His masterpieces are now admired for their exceptional contrasts of light and dark, and they worth a lot on modern art market. It is hard to believe that in the 17th century they could have been rejected by the commissioners. But that actually happened.
“Death of the Virgin” by Caravaggio was painted probably around 1601-02 or 1605-06. It was commissioned to the church Santa Maria della Scala, but the monks rejected the painting when they saw it. What didn’t they like about it?
The painting doesn’t show the moment of Assumption, but the Virgin’s death, although that is actually not uncommon. The Assumption of Mary was declared a dogma by the Pope in 1950… Church’s tradition on this issue was based on apocryphal accounts, according to which Mary died and was buried and Christ came back after 3 days to take her body to Heaven, as He took her soul earlier. The depictions of the Death of the Virgin usually show her lying on the bed, surrounded by the Apostles, while Christ is taking her soul. Assumption of both soul and body first appeared in late Middle Ages (on the altar in Our Lady Church in Cracow, created by Veit Stoss), but let’s get back to Caravaggio now.
The problem was not about what he painted, but how he painted it. Every guy probably heard at least once: “it is not what you said, it is the way you said it…!” There’s no glory in this painting, no choirs of angels are shown, no Christ coming down from Heaven… There is just a dead woman – too dead, and that was a main reason for rejecting this painting. Virgin’s body is swollen, pale, and she has bare feet and her dress is undone by her neck. But the worst thing was that there was a rumor that the model for Virgin’s body was a PROSTITUTE!
Is it a profanity? I don’t think so… Caravaggio didn’t mean to offend anyone or even provoke, although many thought so – he rather wanted to show the sanctity in real world and in common people. He depicted the saints as they probably were: simple, ordinary people. Bare feet refer to Mary’s humility, her undone dress and a hand on the womb – to her divine motherhood. The arm thrown aside reminds the arm of crossed Christ and her red dress refers to her position of the queen and God’s mother.
And what about the prostitute? There was also a rumor that it was Caravaggio’s mistress. Well, let’s be honest: models for most of the Virgins were wives or mistresses of the painters or their patrons. Is it less profane when Mary gets a face (and a naked breast) of king’s mistress Agnès Sorel, or of a nun Lukrezia Buti, who ran from the convent? Those cases will come back here in later posts, by the way…
Luckily there were those who managed to appreciate the value of Caravaggio’s masterpiece. In 1607 Peter Paul Rubens (hired by the duke Vincenzo Gonzaga) recommended buying this painting to the court of Mantua. The painting was later bought from the Gonzaga’s collection in Mantua by the British king Charles I, and after his death purchased to the collection of king of France Louis XIV in 1671 – today it is still in Paris, in the Louvre.
There are many papers and books on this painting – whoever would like to follow the detailed analysis (with the very wide interpretation, sometimes maybe too wide) can check out the book by Pamela Askew Caravaggio’s “Death of the Virgin” (Princeton, New Jersey, 1996)