(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

The Death of the Virgin

Oil on canvas, 369 x 245 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This, the largest picture that Caravaggio had yet produced, did not end up in the place for which it was made. In 1602 a papal legal adviser, Laerzio Cherubini, commissioned a Death of the Virgin for the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere; it was to be finished by 1603. When they saw it, the friars found it alarming, because the Madonna was modelled on a prostitute with whom Caravaggio was in love (according to Mancini), because her legs were exposed (Baglione), because her swollen body was too realistic (Bellori) - for whichever reason, they felt prompted to reject it. After Caravaggio had left Rome, Rubens urged his master, the Duke of Mantua, to buy it. Along with the rest of the movable Gonzaga collection it was bought by Charles I of England and, after he had been executed, was sold to Louis XIV. What the friars could not endure was favoured at court.

The painting is severe, sad and still. Under a red canopy hanging from a barely visible ceiling, the disciples are grouped round the corpse (fixed on a bed in rigor mortis), most standing to the left. Light coming from a window high on the left picks out their foreheads and bald pates, before falling on the upper part of the Virgin's body. Above her stands the young, mourning St John the Evangelist who had been given special charge of her; in front, the seated Mary Magdalene stoops forward and almost buries her head in her lap.

In the predominant colours - red, orange, dark green - Caravaggio uses a slightly wider range than in his later, darker Roman paintings, but nowhere else did he achieve a mood of such overwhelming solemnity. Mary's companions, her Son's followers, are struck dumb by their grief, like relief sculptures on antique tombs. There is no suggestion that their sorrow will be turned into joy or that Mary will be assumed into heaven.