Paintings You Should Know: Caravaggio’s ‘The Death of the Virgin’, C.1602-06

2 Caravaggio Death of the Virgin 1604to06
Caravaggio, The Death of the Virgin, 1604-06

The interesting thing about this painting, beyond anything to do with the composition or the skill of the artist, is the fact that it was, and for some arguably still is, controversial to the point of outright offensiveness.

Although the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven had not yet become official Catholic dogma at the time Caravaggio completed his work, it was nonetheless widely believed by a vast number of Catholics that the mother of Jesus did not suffer sickness, pain, or death, but instead was taken bodily into heaven where she remains at the side of her Son.

In Caravaggio’s painting she is, very obviously and unattractively, dead. It’s an achingly human portrayal, with very little of the holy about it. The Virgin’s halo is a mere wisp of a thing. Her body, no longer in the first flush of youth, is not laid out with hands folded in peaceful repose, but twisted to the side with one arm flung out, as though death were resisted to the last rather than accepted with quiet grace.

Nor do the Apostles gathered around her add any great air of sanctity. Several hide their faces in grief. One seems shocked, others simply contemplative. In the background two seem to be discussing the situation, while another gazes off to the side as though distracted. And in the foreground Mary Magdalene, the only other woman present, is doubled over in grief. No-one raises their eyes to heaven. No-one offers up a prayer. The hope of Christ is, at least temporarily, buried beneath their grief.

Caravaggio, c.1621

To add insult to injury there were and are persistent rumours about the model. She was, perhaps, Caravaggio’s lover, or else a prostitute, or a suicide, or a prostitute who committed suicide.

The upshot of all this is that the Fathers of the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome, for whom the painting had been commissioned, rejected it. Instead it was purchased by a Duke at the recommendation of Reubens, who recognised its genius, and later sold to the ill-fated King Charles I of England. After Charles I was executed in 1649 it was sold again, and then on-sold to Louis XIV of France. Following the French Revolution (1789-99) it became the property of the state, and today it hangs in the Louvre.

The painting itself is huge, measuring 369cm by 245cm, and is painted in oil on canvas. In this it is like the artist himself, for Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610) looms like a giant in the history of the Baroque. Based in Rome, he pioneered a radical naturalism, as seen in The Death of the Virgin, with sharp contrasts between light and shadows. Although he produced an impressive body of work it seems that he worked only when he had to and much preferred looking for trouble, amassing an impressive criminal record. In 1606 he killed a man in a fight after a game of tennis, and fled Rome with a price on his head. His death a few years later while on his way back to Rome to receive a pardon remains as controversial as his life and art. Officially he died of a fever, but he had many enemies and attempts had been made on his life before. Or perhaps he died of lead poisoning from the paints in which it was a common ingredient at the time. Regardless, both Caravaggio and his art are well worth knowing about.


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