Caravaggio painted the death of the Virgin Mary, rather than as an assumption as was especially popular during the Counter-Reformation, as a tragic death surrounded by the grieving apostles. Caravaggio went against these norms because he was contemplating the historical event and the inward realities of the Catholic faith within his compositions. Caravaggio was depicting the Catholic belief that Mary was assumed into heaven as more of an inward spiritual experience.
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Perhaps Caravaggio was attempting to capture the moment when the Virgin Mary fell asleep, before she was assumed into Heaven, and the confused apostles unknowingly mourn over he supposed death.
At the time of Caravaggio’s commission for Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio was now living in Palazzo Mattei, home of Cardinal Girolamo. Although the artist was no longer living with Cardinal del Monte, he still relied on the cardinal’s political protection. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon, “Caravaggio was stopped for carrying arms without a license…the painter insisted he was on the household roll of the Cardinal del Monte”. Caravaggio was taken to prison for this offense, but was likely released with the help of del Monte. Death of the Virgin was commissioned in 1601 by Laerzio Cherubini, a jurist for the Vatican. The painting would serve as the altar piece for Cherubini’s family chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. While Caravaggio originally received the commission in 1601, the artist did not complete the painting until 1604-06. The painting would ultimately be rejected by the Carmelites who over saw the church of Santa Maria della Scala, and its replacement would be painted by Carlo Saraceni.
It is worth noting exactly why the painting was rejected, by looking at the four Marian dogmas that are specific the Roman Catholic Church. A survey of these beliefs will point to the fact that the Virgin Mary is an immensely important figure in the Catholic Church, an importance that Caravaggio would have likely missed with his composition. The first Marian Dogma is the Immaculate Conception. Not to be confused with the birth of Christ, this is the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary by the virtues of Christ through her mother, Saint Anne. This belief, declared by Pope Pius IX in his homily, Ineffabilis Deus of 1854, makes her free from original sin. The next dogma is that of Mary being the Mother of God, that is, Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ through the conception of the Holy Spirit. The third Marian dogma is that of the Virgin Mary’s perpetual virginity. This belief was held by many Church Fathers, including Tertullian, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, and Saint Augustine, and it was that Mary was, is, and always will be a virgin. Mary did not give birth to any other children besides Jesus, he had no other siblings. Mary was declared “ever-virgin” at the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553. The fourth and final Marian dogma is that of her assumption. Mary did not die, she was assumed into heaven and sits at the right hand of Jesus Christ making petitions for the Church to her Son because she has special favor with him. She did not die; she merely fell asleep, and was then assumed into heaven, as Pope Pius XII declared in 1950. The Blessed Virgin Mary is an important part of Catholic belief. She is the example of the perfect believer. Marian visions and pilgrimages are integral to Catholic spirituality to this day.
Giulio Mancini was an art collector and theorist. He practiced medicine in the hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome and was the official physician of Pope Urban VIII. As an art collector and physician, he believed there was a close connection between knowledge of medicine and aesthetic art theory. As an art collector, he tried to purchase Death of the Virgin in 1607 not long after it was rejected by the Carmelites. In his biography of the artist, Mancini made significant claims that Caravaggio used a prostitute from Ortaccio as his model for Death of the Virgin. In his article, Olson claims that, because of Mancini’s medical background, and the fact that he tried to buy the painting, perhaps Caravaggio used an actual dead prostitute as his model. Mancini would have participated in many autopsies and seen many cadavers during his time at Santo Spirito. Francis Gage explains, “…the lasciviousness that Mancini identified in the painting cannot be attributed to blatant sexuality…the dominant associations with prostitution in early modern Italian culture were not sexual in nature. 16th and 17th century writers associated this class of women with moral and physical contagion and social disorder”. Including the act of selling sexual activity for profit, drinking, cursing, blasphemy, and slander were all examples of activity that would label a woman of this time period a “prostitute” in Rome.
With Death of the Virgin, there is already a problem in the title. According to Roman Catholic dogma, there no death because Mary did not die, she was assumed into Heaven.
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