Where? First floor, room 8 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Laerzio Cherubini for the Carmelite Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome
What do you see? This enormous painting (369 x 245 cm) shows the Virgin Mary, who lies reclined wearing a simple red dress. Her head and arm are hanging, and her legs are swollen, which are clear signs that Mary has passed away. The apostles and Mary Magdalene are surrounding Mary, and several of them hide their faces to show their grief. The grieving occurs in silence. Mary Magdalene is sitting in the foreground in front of Mary. The old man on the left is probably Saint Peter and kneeling next to him is probably St. John. It looks like Caravaggio has left open a spot in the circle of grievers (at the place of the copper basin) and invites the viewer to join them in grieving.
Backstory: Caravaggio was an innovator and breaks with past depictions of the death of Mary. There is almost no symbolism used in this painting (except probably the faint halo above Mary’s head). The scene is very down-to-earth. Until this painting, works on the death of the Virgin Mary typically included some reference to Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, like some angels receiving her in Heaven.
Composition: Caravaggio was a master of light and shadows, and he was at the basis of the development of the Baroque. In this painting, the light enters the room from a window on the top left. The light shines unflatteringly on the bald heads of the apostles and Mary’s upper body. The painting is composed such that the viewer immediately pays attention to Mary. The diagonal shape of Mary’s body and the color of her dress with the light on it are ways in which Mary becomes the center of the attention. The large red cloth on the top of the painting makes the scene more dramatic. It also forms a kind of arch and is used to let the viewer focus on Mary.
Why the Death of a Virgin? According to the Catholic religion, the Virgin Mary falls asleep and is taken up into Heaven. This is also referred to as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into Heaven, or simply the Assumption. The Assumption is a Catholic dogma declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950, but the dogma does not declare whether Mary died first. The day of the Assumption is typically celebrated in churches on August 15 and is a public holiday in many countries (including Italy). It has also been a popular topic for artists since the 18th century.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying both attention to the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a brilliant contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. Caravaggio was a master of shock in his work, but also had a tumultuous life and was accused of murder, assault, many fights, and has served in prison. His painting style has had a big influence on the development of Baroque painting (which includes drama and an intense contrast between light and dark). Caravaggio painted both religious works, such as this painting and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums, and mythological paintings such as Medusa in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: When Caravaggio finished this painting for the Church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome it was very controversial. The Carmelites, a religious order within the Catholic Church, commissioned this painting and did not like it at all. It was thought that Caravaggio used a prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary (which may have been the case indeed). Moreover, he did not include the religious symbols that were associated with the death of the Virgin Mary. Not only was there no reference to the assumption of Mary into heaven, but Mary was also depicted with bare feet, which was a very uncommon and disrespectful thing to do according to the beliefs at that time. So, the painting was rejected and instead a painting of Carlo Saraceni was used. Peter Paul Rubens, a contemporary of Caravaggio, however, later recognized the brilliance of this painting and contributed to the initial popularity of this work.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Written by Eelco Kappe