Death of the Virgin


Death of the Virgin
(1605-1606; Paris, Louvre)
   The Death of the Virgin was Caravaggio's last altarpiece before he fled from Rome after killing a man over a tennis wager. It was commissioned by the papal lawyer Laerzio Cherubini for his chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Scala. According to Christian doctrine, the Virgin Mary did not die. Rather, she fell into a deep sleep and was taken up to heaven to reign as queen alongside her son (the Dormition). Caravaggio, however, presented the scene as an actual death, the Virgin a bloated, decomposing corpse modeled after the body of a prostitute fished out of the Tiber River. She is surrounded by the apostles, who mourn her loss. They are barefoot since the church for which the altarpiece was commissioned belonged to the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelites. St. Mary Magdalen, who was not present at the Dormition, is included as a mourning figure in the foreground. She is there to refer to one of the charitable works the Discalced Carmelites of Santa Maria della Scala performed—the taking in and reforming of prostitutes. The Death of the Virgin was rejected by the fathers of Santa Maria because they felt that the depiction of the Virgin in rigor mortis lacked decorum. Nevertheless, the painting was exhibited for a week and the people of Rome stood in line for hours to see it. At the time, Rubens was in the papal city and, after viewing the painting, he immediately advised his patron, the Duke of Mantua, to purchase it, which the duke did.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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