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

Madonna di Loreto

Oil on canvas, 260 x 150 cm
Sant'Agostino, Rome

In 1603 money was given by the heirs of one Ermete Cavalletti for the decoration of the family chapel in the church of San Agostino, not far from the Piazza Navona, at the centre of Caravaggio's Rome. By the end of 1604 this painting was installed in a spot where it has been ever since. In the winter of 1603-04 Caravaggio had been in Tolentino, not far from the shrine of Loreto, and he may have gone there to see the supposed Holy House of Nazareth.

He has made simple devotion affecting. Two pilgrims - pellegrini in Italian - kneel in prayer before the statue beside a pillar, while the Madonna and Child, living to the eyes of faith, look down on them in quiet attention. (The painting is also called Madonna dei Pellegrini.) The woman has a ruckled bonnet and the dirty soles of the man's feet are so close to the spectator that they cannot be avoided. The haloes on the sacred figures and their raised position remove them from our world, but their beauty contains no hint of arrogance - they gaze at the world with gentle sympathy.

Some have seen in this Madonna the latest woman in Caravaggio's life Lena or Maddalena, over whom he had a fight. She is painted with love, but has only one rich passage in the left arm of her dress; elsewhere colour is toned down. Her craning neck was to be almost a mannerism in Caravaggio's works of this period, but here the pose is convincing.