The Game Changers: Caravaggio's Death of the Virgin - Louvre, Paris
Updated: Jun 7, 2020
This is not just my favourite Caravaggio, this is the ultimate Caravaggio. For me, this is the painting that demonstrates the full extent of his groundbreaking aesthetic revolution. His innovations are stylistical and, perhaps more importantly, iconographical.
The realism of the depiction of the Virgin's death is brutal. Mary is shown on her deathbed with her modest dress coming undone, the head lolling to one side, the hair dishevelled. Her throat is swollen, her hand is limping as if the wrist was broken and her feet are bare - we are most certainly looking at a cadaver. There is no ascension into heaven, there are no angels waiting, the faint halo is the only giveaway of her holiness.
Caravaggio breaks with all religious iconographic conventions by showing us the mother of Christ dying like all mothers, surrounded by her grieving children. One of the apostles is rubbing his eyes with his fists like a small child. There is nothing sacred or spiritual about this somber scene, they all look like peasants. The red swath of cloth hanging from the ceiling like a theatre curtain dominates the upper part of the picture and creates a distinct visual continuity with the Virgin's dress. Maybe that's her stairway to heaven.
It will come as no surprise to learn that this extraordinary painting was rejected by the monks who had commissioned it. They thought Caravaggio's treatment of the subject was indecent and asked b-lister Carlo Saraceni to paint a new altarpiece for their church. In this one, Mary - who is supposedly dead - looks very much alive as she sits upright in prayer. Order restored, but Caravaggio's revolution was in already motion and couldn't be stopped.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin (c.1605)
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Carlo Saraceni, Death of the Virgin (1610).
Santa Maria della Scala, Rome