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

The Martyrdom of St Ursula

Oil on canvas, 154 x 178 cm
Banca Commerciale Italiana, Naples

This, another of the newly rediscovered paintings by Caravaggio, dates to his final weeks in Naples, before the ill-fated sea-trip back towards Rome and the pardon which was awaiting him. Saint Ursula was a popular Christian saint, remembered for her legendary refusal to marry a pagan Hun. Caravaggio has picked on the climactic moment of her martyrdom, when her frustrated suitor has just fired an arrow at her - here at point-blank range which is piercing her breast.

In the dimly lit scene the saint gazes at the arrow with an air of quiet concern, while the Hun stares at her, his eyes shaded in darkness, one attendant looking at his hand and another, who must be modelled on Caravaggio himself, peering from the back, anxious to watch the proceedings. It is the last time that Caravaggio sees himself as an anguished spectator, but in pictorial terms the painting seems to presage what might have been a fresh stage in his career, for the Hun is painted with a new boldness in the brushwork. The varnish was still wet in May. In early July, Caravaggio was dead.