The Death of the Virgin (1601-6) by Caravaggio
Interpretation of Baroque Religious Painting

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The Death of the Virgin
By Caravaggio.
Considered to be one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

The Death of the Virgin (1601-6)


Interpretation and Analysis
Explanation of More Paintings by Caravaggio


Name: Death of the Virgin (Morte della vergine) (1601-6)
Artist: Caravaggio (1571-1610)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting (religious)
Movement: Baroque painting
Location: Louvre, Paris

For an explanation of other important pictures from the Baroque era, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of works by
Italian Baroque artists like
Michelangelo Merisi da
Caravaggio, please see
our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation and Analysis of Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio

Despite his short life, violent character and relatively small output, Caravaggio remains one of the best artists of all time, mainly due to his revolutionary style of naturalism and his painterly legacy - known as "Caravaggism" - which inspired such painters as Rubens (1577-1640), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). Rejecting both Mannerism and the classical "High Renaissance" style of Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Caravaggio created his madonnas and saints from ordinary down-to-earth people, often using courtesans as models. He achieved his first breakthrough in his late 20s, with two masterpieces on the life of St Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. In 1601 he completed The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) and Conversion on the way to Damascus (1601), for the Cerasi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. He also painted Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, London). These religious paintings made him the most talked-about artist in Rome. But while in many ways his style of painting was exactly what the Council of Trent (1545-63) had in mind when it demanded a more down-to-earth type of Catholic Counter-Reformation art, his striving to make the characters of the Bible more meaningful often caused him to ignore completely the conventions about how sacred events and characters should be represented. This led to his Biblical art being rejected for being too impious. The most famous example of this is his Death of the Virgin.

Later in 1601, after completing his work in the Cerasi Chapel, Caravaggio was commissioned by the wealthy criminal lawyer and papal legal adviser Laerzio Cherubini (1556-1626), to produce a painting on the death of the Virgin for the altar of his family chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere.

As the name indicates, Caravaggio's painting portrayed the demise of the Mother of Christ, an event known in the Orthodox Church as the "Dormition of the Virgin". At the time, the Catholic dogma that Mary had been assumed into heaven while still alive had not yet taken hold, so despite many versions of the Assumption being painted throughout the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque - see for instance: "Assumption of the Virgin" (1516-18) by Titian, or "Assumption of the Virgin" (1524-30) by Correggio - as well as the widespread popular belief among 17th century Catholics that she was taken up into heaven before she died, Caravaggio's work actually showed her dead body - one of the last Catholic pictures to do so. (Note: In 1997, Pope John-Paul II declared that Mary experienced a natural death prior to her assumption into Heaven.) But Caravaggio went further and treated the scene as if it were simply the death of a beloved middle-aged woman, without any allusion to her holiness (apart from a thin halo), or status as the Mother of Jesus.

The dead Mary is depicted lying flat on her back clad in a simple red dress. Her plain appearance, lifeless head, hanging arm, bloated body and swollen feet leave us in no doubt of Caravaggio's commitment to naturalism and to a more realistic portrayal of Christian imagery.



Not surprisingly perhaps, the painting was rejected by the fathers of Santa Maria della Scala (1606), and replaced by a more conventional picture on the same subject by Carlo Saraceni (1579-1620). The original painting was now available to private buyers, and it was purchased by Vincenzo Gonzaga on the recommendation of Rubens, after which it came into the possession of the Louvre.

NOTE: The art collector and writer Giulio Mancini (1559-1630) claimed that the painting was rejected because Caravaggio had used a drowned prostitute, as the model for Mary. But both the art historian Giovanni Baglione (1566-1643) and the biographer Gian Pietro Bellori (1613-96) - noted for his Lives of the Artists (Vite de'Pittori, Scultori et Architetti Moderni) (1672) - state that it was the appearance of the Virgin that caused it to be refused.

Unlike several of Caravaggio's other religious works, Death of the Virgin is not a stripped-down simplified composition, limited to three or four people. Nor is it marked by any any degree of movement. At least eight mourners are gathered around the body - so arranged as to guide the spectator's eye towards the Virgin's mortal remains - and the whole mood of the picture is one of quiet, intense grief. The robes of the mourners and the bedclothes seem to absorb and deaden all sound, thus intensifying the sorrow. Notice also how Caravaggio avoids the overt emotion seen in Mannerist painting, choosing instead to highlight the grief of the mourners by hiding their faces.

As always, he fully exploits the nuances of light and shadow - in a technique called chiaroscuro - in order to enhance the three-dimensional nature of his figures and other objects. He also uses tenebrism to pick out the weeping mourners, and to illuminate Mary's lifeless form with heavenly light.

As Rubens was well aware, Death of the Virgin is a great masterpiece by the great heretical painter of the Catholic Church. Unlike any other version of this subject, it shows the deceased Virgin Mary laid out just like poor people are laid out, and being mourned just like poor people are mourned. What more could Caravaggio do to bring religion to the masses?

Not long after completing this picture Caravaggio became a fugitive after killing another man in a brawl, and fled to Naples. For details of his impact on Neapolitan art, see: Caravaggio in Naples (1607-10).

Explanation of More Paintings by Caravaggio

The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (1599-1600)
Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi.

The Entombment of Christ (1601-3)
Vatican Museums, Rome.

Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All) (1602)
Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.


• For an explanation of other Baroque pictures, see: Homepage.

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