A Matter of Life and Death: Contemporaneous Criticisms of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin

Written by Isabella Mello
Edited by Greta Rainbow

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (Fig. 1) depicts the end of the Virgin Mary’s worldly life. The narrative, from the apocrypha, is ambiguous regarding the specifics of Mary’s physical death, and instead emphasizes the assumption of her soul into heaven. The controversial painting, created between 1601 and 1606, prompted negative reactions from critics and patrons due to Caravaggio’s atypical depiction of the story. The painting’s singularity stems from a number of factors, notably the emphasis on the Virgin’s corporeality and explicit representation of her death, along with the absence of traditional religious iconography and the use of a rumored prostitute as the model for Mary. The artist often created religious scenes using working class models, but not without calling into question his reverence of the subject matter.[1] Initially commissioned for a Carmelite chapel of Santa Maria della Scala, the painting was rejected, dismounted, and sold to a series of buyers such as the Duke of Mantua and King Charles I of England, before landing at its current location in the Louvre.[2] Furthermore, Caravaggio’s depiction of Mary’s dead body went against the early modern tendency to praise an artwork for “lifelikeness,” a concept defined by Fredrika Jacobs as “works of art said to be so lifelike as to be alive and, conversely, living figures stupefied into being lifeless by the stunning visual effects of lifelike pictures and irrepressibly vivid statues.”[3] Instead of infusing Mary’s figure with movement depicting a narrative of resurrection, Caravaggio makes the scene about mortality and corporeality. The critical rejection of Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin was a result of her human, visceral qualities, which confronted early modern admiration for “lifelike” art and also exacerbated class and moral anxieties.

Figure 1. Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, “Death of the Virgin” c. 1601-1606, oil on canvas, 369 cm x 245 cm, Louvre, Paris, France.

Death of the Virgin depicts the Virgin’s physical death, as opposed to the more common portrayal of the subject ostensibly sleeping or actively rising to heaven.[4] In the composition, Mary lies on a simple, plain bed, with one arm limp and awkwardly outstretched, the other hand on her stomach and her bare feet hang off the bed. The only elements of exposed skin, they call attention to themselves and their limpness indicates Mary’s body is cadaver. Sixteenth-century critics Giovanni Baglione and Giovan Pietro Bellori describe the figure as gonfia, or bloated.[5] As Todd Olson discusses in “Caravaggio’s Corner: Forensic Medicine in Giulo Mancini’s Art Criticism” the Virgin’s “bloat” is not altogether legible from her body, most of which is covered by her dress. However, Olson argues, “perhaps the critics saw a swollen body because swollenness offered a way of describing a weighted corporeality that undermined the seamless elevation of the Virgin from the world of flesh to that of the spirit in death.”[6] In any case, Mary was popularly described as corpse-like.

Titian’s 1516-18 painting Assumption of the Virgin (Fig. 2) provides a useful contrast to Caravaggio’s painting. It is well known that Caravaggio’s artistic style for religious work was different than the typical painter, marked by his  minimalist scenes, odd compositional angles, use of models, and dramatic chiaroscuro. His uniqueness becomes strikingly evident when comparing Death of the Virgin to Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin. Titian’s composition divides the panel into three tiers, all of which direct the eye upward, reinforcing the ascendant quality of the scene–Mary is, after all, going to heaven. The lowest section of the painting depicts apostles reaching up towards the Virgin Mary. The middle tier features a triumphant, upward-looking Mary, with her flowing gown and her arms positioned upward in a posture of praise. She is surrounded by angels who lift her up, an image that reinforces the upward motion of the work, and the clouds upon which Mary stands convey lightness. The top of the painting is an image of God, indicative of Mary’s divine destination and her piety. The three tiers emphasize Mary’s triumphant rise and communicate from where she is coming (the earth, the land of the living) and to where she is going (heaven, the land of God). Assumption of the Virgin, with its emphasis on upward motion, lightness, and religious symbolism, is the antithesis to Death of the Virgin and Caravaggio’s heavy and death-focused composition.

Figure 2. Titian, “Assumption of the Virgin,” c. 1516-1518, oil on wood, 690 cm x 360 cm, Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy.

The tale of the Assumption of the Virgin, alternately called the Dormition of the Virgin, or “transitus,” glosses over details of Mary’s bodily state, instead focusing on her soul ascending to heaven. Jacobus de Voragine’s popular version of this story in the 13th-century Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) recounts, “Then Mary’s soul went forth from her body and flew to the arms of her Son and was spared all bodily pain, just as it had been innocent of all corruption”[7] and “Thereupon Mary’s soul entered her body, and she came forth glorious from the monument and was assumed into the heavenly bridal chamber, a great multitude of angels keeping her company.”[8] From this text, we can understand the Assumption scene with a focus on Mary’s resurrection rather that her death. Although there is no evidence as to whether Caravaggio himself read this particular version, I infer that the popular Voragine tale informed early modern audiences’ understanding of the Assumption scene, and thus their expectations for a visual representation. The language in this version carries connotations of life rather than death. The statements that “Mary’s soul entered her body” and she entered the “heavenly bridal chamber,” suggest optimistic beginnings rather than mortal ends. This aligns more closely with Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin rather than Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin. Notably, the Legenda aurea Assumption describes that Mary was “spared all bodily pain,” because she “had been innocent of all corruption.” Caravaggio focuses on physical death in Death of the Virgin, directly going against this version of the narrative. Voragine links a lack of physical pain in death to Mary’s innocence, and the painting’s emphasized physicality may suggest Mary was not innocent of corruption, which would have been a shocking proposal as well as a blasphemous one.

Caravaggio’s depiction of Mary as physically deceased and emphasis on her corporeality are not the only ways in which the painting was controversial. Death of the Virgin is devoid of traditional iconography, and in some aspects appears to be actively opposing the conventional visual language of the Assumption. Absent are angels or an obvious reference to Jesus or God. To replace Caravaggio’s painting, the Carmelite priests commissioned a Saraceni painting (Fig. 3) and specifically requested that the artist include angels. The artist remade the painting when this request was not met in the first version.[9] There are few clear visual references to Jesus or God in Death of the Virgin, except for Mary’s faint halo, and a light from above that shines on her. Both of these components could indicate the presence of God, yet Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin directly evokes the iconography of Christianity. A quick glance at Death of the Virgin might cause the viewer to mistake it for a scene of a common woman’s death, given the plainness of the furniture, clothing, and lack of obvious holy symbols. As Caravaggio scholar Frances Gage observes, Mary “mirrors ordinary seventeenth-century Italian burial practices,”[10] not befitting a holy subject, and the decision to portray her this way “dishonoured her.”[11] Caravaggio was known for using lower-class models for his paintings of religious or mythical figures, much to contemporary viewers’ disdain because, by doing this, Caravaggio confused the social and religious hierarchy. Furthermore, the composition has a heavy quality, in direct contrast to the story’s central theme of ascension. The colours are dark, with few sources of light. There is a thick, deep red curtain at the top of the painting and the dense material appears weighted. The shape of the curtain draws the eye downward and the fabric’s tangibility places the emphasis on the material world. It is almost humorous in contrast with the Assumption of the Virgin–instead of ascending to the land of God, Mary is on her deathbed and the only thing above her is a curtain. In The Living Image in Renaissance Art, Jacobs maintains, “The topoi of lifelikeness, liveliness, reanimation and resurrection are tightly threaded within the fabric of the culture of the period.”[12] Jacobs notes that Vasari’s language about artists and art practice in Lives of the Artists is infused with tropes of life and resurrection. Vasari’s introduction to Lives of the Artists states that art is “like human bodies, [which] are born, grow up, become old, and die, [and artists] will now be able to recognize more easily the progress of art’s rebirth and the state of perfection to which it has again ascended in our own times.”[13] Vasari’s use of such language in his seminal text illustrates the centrality of the themes of life, death, and resurrection in early modern art practice and art criticism. The language of lifelikeness was attached to quality in early modern art criticism. Jacobs continues her discussion of Vasari’s Lives and argues, “Within this evolutionary framework, art does not simply advance toward consummate excellence. Images acquire life as successive generations of artists master medium and intricacies of artifice.”[14] To return to Baglioni and Bellori’s criticism of Death of the Virgin, they label the Virgin gonfia in order to convey her similarity to a corpse, and in doing so they solidify the absence of life in the figure. This can be read as both a descriptive statement as well as a qualitative criticism, given the Renaissance ideal of master artists creating not only with technical proficiency but also with lifelikeness and spirit. Caravaggio’s rendering of Mary went against common associations with her dormition and although it is a narrative of “resurrection” and ascension to heaven, Caravaggio doesn’t include any elements, either iconographically or stylistically, that would convey this. Thus the painting opposed an artistic ideal as well as the usual and accepted version of this image.

Figure 3. Carlo Saraceni, “Death of the Virgin,” oil on canvas, 459 x273 cm, Santa Maria della Scala, Rome, Italy.

Another point of contention in Death of the Virgin came from Giulio Mancini’s criticism of Caravaggio’s choice of model. Mancini, a physician, writer and art dealer, was outraged at Caravaggio’s use of a prostitute as the model for the Virgin Mary, even going so far as to attempt to buy the painting so that he could store it away and stop anyone from seeing it.[15] In Mancini’s Considerazioni sulla pittura (Considerations on Painting), he calls the figure a meretrice sozza (dirty prostitute).[16] Mancini claims to identify the model as a particularly popular prostitute from Ortaccio (a bold choice as he would have opened himself up to personal inquiry regarding his familiarity with prostitutes) and he asserts that the model’s identity was the reason for the removal of Death of the Virgin from the chapel in Santa Maria della Scala.[17] Olson points out that this allegation is probably untrue, given that the image did hang in the chapel for at least a few weeks before its removal. However Mancini’s accusation reveals his utmost discomfort with the use of a prostitute as model for the Virgin.[18][19] Olson details the particulars of Mancini’s critique and suggests that his revulsion of the model’s profession and her placement in the painting was tied to class anxieties. His argument rests on the legibility of class from the body, which ties in Mancini’s medical expertise. Olson states:

I would argue that the synthetic representation of the anatomical interior inadvertently effaced the difference between Christ and criminal, noble and ignoble body. Despite any external variablility, interiors were mapped as the same…In a rigidly hierarchical society, labour was understood to deform bodies and to make social class visible…The effacement of internal differences was potentially and dangerously egalitarian.[20]

Mancini would have had an intimate knowledge of anatomy and perhaps, as Olson suggests, would have been anxious with the universalizing quality of anatomical models. In the instance of Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio exacerbates anxieties about class confusion by using a prostitute as his model for the Virgin, suggesting that the criminal members of society could literally be “models,” for divine behavior. By disguising the body of the prostitute as the Virgin Mary, Caravaggio presented a subversion of the “rigid social hierarchy,” a class hierarchy that was closely tied to religion and morality. Caravaggio collided the lowly, base realm of prostitution, which is entirely reliant on human bodily desire and inherently sinful actions, with the realm of the holy and out-of-body. Mary, as an ideal woman and symbol of purity, would have represented the top of the hierarchy. In modelling her after a prostitute, Caravaggio places the most depraved figure in Renaissance society on the same level as the most moral.

The rebellious quality of Death of the Virgin stems from the corporeality of the work, and the visceral attention to the Virgin’s death, with little to no reference to resurrection. Ironically, the sharp criticism of the painting for its lack of lifelikeness is what prompted a strong reaction from viewers.  The very thing that the image was criticized for, an over-emphasis on death, is what gives the painting life. Caravaggio’s artwork challenged contemporary viewers because of his rejection of typical Renaissance ideals about the quality of art as well as the social hierarchy. At the same time, Caravaggio’s painting serves as a mirror to Renaissance society, prompting through its lifelike quality a re-examination of the hierarchy and their valuation of art and its purpose.

[1] John Varriano, Caravaggio: The Art of Realism (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press: 2006), 119.
[2] Walter F Friedlaender, Caravaggio Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1974). 195.
[3] Fredrika Jacobs, introduction to The Living Image in Renaissance Art (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press: 2005), 2.
[4] For examples of a more typical depiction, look to Peter Paul Rubens’ 1626 altarpiece, Assumption of the Virgin Mary or the earlier Hugo van der Goes Death of the Virgin c. 1480.
[5] Todd P. Olson, “Caravaggio’s Coroner: Forensic Medicine in Giulio Mancini’s Art Criticism,” Oxford Art Journal 28, no. 1 (2005): 85.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Jacobus Voragine, William Granger Ryan, and Eamon Duffy, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) PDF e-Book.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Randolph N. Parks, “On Caravaggio’s ‘Dormition of the Virgin’ and Its Setting.” The Burlington Magazine 127, no. 988 (1985): 443.
[10] Frances Gage, “Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, Giulio Mancini, and Madonna Blasphemed,” in Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, ed. Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 96.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Jacobs, Living Image, 172.
[13] Giorgio Vasari, Julia Conaway Bondanella, and Peter E. Bondanella, The Lives of the Artists, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 6.
[14] Jacobs, Living Image, 172. Emphasis added.
[15] Olson, “Caravaggio’s Coroner,” 89.
[16] Ibid, 85.
[17] Ibid, 89.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Other scholars such as Pamela Askew have discussed this fact as well.
[20] Ibid, 92.

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