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

Madonna dei Palafrenieri

Oil on canvas, 292 x 211 cm
Galleria Borghese, Rome

The present Madonna with the Serpent is generally called Madonna dei Palafrenieri.

It was in late 1605 that Caravaggio finally obtained a commission for St Peter's. The papal grooms or palafrenieri invited him to paint an altarpiece for them, and in April 1606 it was exhibited in the basilica for a few days before being moved to the grooms' church of Sant'Anna nearby. If the sympathy of Paul V had facilitated the commission, his nephew soon profited by it, for later in the year, just after the painter had left Rome for good, it was added to the Borghese collection.

Under the watchful gaze of St Anne, Jesus's apocryphal grandmother, Mary helps a naked Christ Child to tread on a snake. The snake may be interpreted as Satan and indirectly as heresy, for Mary and Jesus are free of sin and its consequences, Mary as a virgin mother and by reason of her Immaculate Conception, Jesus as God made man - and they combine to crush the serpent under their feet.

This large iconographic canvas has a certain humanity thanks to Mary's naturalness and the lack of inhibition with which Caravaggio depicts Christ naked (a fact that gave offence to some connoisseurs at the time, according to Bellori). Though their haloes are aligned, a dark gulf separates the pretty Mary from her ugly mother; and if the palafrenieri were willing to let Cardinal Scipione Borghese buy the picture so soon after they had received it and paid for it, it may have been because they disliked the unflattering depiction of their patroness.