If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin

Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1605-06, Oil on canvas, 12 feet, 10 inches x 8 feet (369 x 245 cm) (Musée du Louvre, Paris) Painted for the altar of a family chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Scala del Trastevere, Rome. Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker http://www.smarthistory.org/caravaggios-death-of-the-virgin.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

BETH HARRIS: We're in the Louvre, and we're looking at Caravaggio's painting "The Death of the Virgin," from 1605, 1606. This is a very large painting. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's quite dark. Caravaggio is known for painting in the dark manner, but this is an especially dark painting. And it actually might need to be cleaned. BETH HARRIS: Maybe. We see that dark, tenebroso background and the figures very, very close to us, but we don't see anything that we might expect to see in a painting of the Virgin Mary's death. Normally we might expect to see her being assumed into heaven or angels receiving her in heaven. And typical of Caravaggio, he's created a spiritual scene but brought it totally down to earth and used a very everyday language to depict it. STEVEN ZUCKER: The Virgin Mary herself looks like she could be a contemporary Roman. BETH HARRIS: She doesn't look particularly spiritual, aside from the faint halo which we can barely make out around her head. Her hair is undone. Her front of her dress is coming open. Her feet are bare. Which was really indecent. The priests at the time said she looked like Caravaggio had modeled her on a prostitute who'd been dragged out of the river, hardly an appropriate model for the Virgin Mary. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, the monks, they rejected the painting because of that rumor. So the painting is down to earth. It is, in a sense, the Catholic stories brought into our world in the most direct way. And if you look at the scale of the painting and the way in which that young woman who's mourning in the foreground bends down, she seems to virtually be in our space. We could reach over to that copper basin that is just at her feet and seems to be just at ours as well. BETH HARRIS: I think Caravaggio has really intentionally left a space open for us in the circle of mourners who surround her. If you look at them, they're obviously the apostles. But Caravaggio has let the light fall on perhaps the most unflattering aspects of their features in a way that I think is very typical of Caravaggio and his interest in the everyday and the common and then the lowly. STEVEN ZUCKER: But that's not to say that he's not a master of composition. If you look at that wonderful swash of red cloth above, the way that it frames beautifully and elegantly the scene, but it also creates a kind of arc and curve that is repeated in those bald heads, which actually also sort of reverse and lead us down to the Virgin Mary. Her body lays across at a diagonal, a reminder that we're no longer in the Renaissance, but we're looking at a more activated composition that is very much typical of the Baroque. Her arm creates a different kind of diagonal as it moves towards us. And you have that incredible broken wrist that then leads us down to the woman below her. I think it's almost as if Caravaggio is suggesting that we should be like this young woman before us, bent over in sorrow for the death of the Virgin. BETH HARRIS: I was noticing the hands, the hands of the apostle in gold, that hand that's foreshortened-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Oh, it's wonderful, isn't it? BETH HARRIS: --the figure below him who's got his head in his hands, the figure next to the man in gold who's weeping, who's rubbing his eyes, the other figure next to him who props his head up with his hand, and then down to the Virgin Mary, whose arm is foreshortened and her hand hangs down. But the other hand, her right hand, looks as though it was sort of flopped down on her chest. And as you said, we can really sense that this is indeed a dead body. There's no sense of spiritual rebirth or salvation. We almost feel rigor mortis setting here. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, look at the way that her right hand, the ring finger is tucked under the middle finger in a kind of haphazard way that no living person would allow to happen. BETH HARRIS: It's as though Caravaggio is completely rejecting the elegance of the High Renaissance to intentionally give us something difficult and almost ugly. STEVEN ZUCKER: And something that is of our world, this embrace of the spiritual through our world.