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Work Death of the Virgin
Department of Paintings: Italian painting
Death of the Virgin
© 1993 RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Commissioned in 1601 for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, this painting could not have been finished before 1605-1606. After being refused by the monks, who found it unworthy of the church, it was replaced by a work on the same subject painted by Carlo Saraceni.
A brutal view of the religious theme
Mary lies reclined, clad in a simple red dress. The lolling head, the hanging arm, the swollen, spread feet: this is a raw and realistic view of the Virgin's mortal remains. The sacred character of the figure is evidenced only by a thin halo. The apostles gathered around her are little recognizable: their faces are almost all engulfed in shadow or hidden by hands. The elderly man on the left could be St. Peter, and kneeling at his side is perhaps St. John. The woman isolated in the foreground has often been identified as Mary Magdalene. Virtually no element here testifies to the divine nature of the subject: Caravaggio completely abandons the iconography traditionally used to indicate the holiness of the Virgin. In this cast-off body, nothing of the respectful representation found in devotional paintings remains.
A work of light and shadow
The composition is arranged around the Virgin, the painting's central theme. The compact mass of the assemblage and the posturing of the figures guide the viewer's eye toward the abandoned body. The theatrical drape of blood-red cloth heightens the scene's dramatic effect. The painter makes use of the nuances of light and shadow to model the volumes of the objects, figures, and clothing. But above all he accentuates, through this process, the physical presence of the Virgin, struck by a dazzling light. The artist creates the illusion of depth through a series of lighter areas: from the back of Mary Magdalene's neck in the foreground, the eye penetrates further into the painting, passing from Mary's face to the hands and heads of the apostles.
Suppressing all anecdotal detail, Caravaggio invests this subdued scene with extraordinary monumentality through the sole presence of these figures and the intensity of their emotions.
When he painted The Death of the Virgin (c. 1601-6), Caravaggio had been working in Rome for fifteen years. The work was commissioned by a Vatican law official for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, but was refused by the clergy who considered it unworthy of the site. Caravaggio's brutal view, very realistic and virtually devoid of holiness, provoked strong reactions in the public of his time.
This painting perfectly illustrates the iconographic and formal revolution that Caravaggio instigated in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Distancing himself from the precious, affected mannerist vogue, the artist inaugurated a frank, robust, energetic style. He took on the task of translating people's reality and emotions without worrying about the conventions of representations of the sacred. His impact on the evolution of pictorial conceptions in the 17th century was considerable.
BibliographyStéphane Loire, "La Mort de La Vierge".
Michelangelo MERISI, known as CARAVAGGIO
Death of the Virgin
Painted for the altar of a family chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala del Trastevere, Rome
Oil on canvas
H. 3.69 m; W. 2.45 m
Louis XIV Collections (purchased 1671)
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