1571 c/o Martin Heavisides

Le mort de la Vierge

Marvellous work by the other Michelangelo, Caravaggio, showing the apostles—St Peter recognizable by his bald spot and beard—about the deathbed of Mary mother of Jesus. Great swoop of red curtain reaching down to them from the high arch of the room, like the spirit of grace (in a dancing mood) stooping to elevate her to her place in the heavens, Regina Caeli. Commissioned for a church which refused the finished work. Why? Two possibilities, not mutually exclusive, occur to me: 1) La Vierge’, laid out at full length , is an exceptionally short woman, almost a dwarf, and has aged with grace but with all the marks of age and little trace of the usual beauty her younger self shows in most renderings of Madonna and Child or even in most Pietas (where she certainly never looks as if she’d aged thirty years since those first snaps of her with the baby—not untypically in fact, she looks younger than her adult son, which is not a common thing in nature. Caravaggio’s decision to age the Virgin like a normal woman was unconventional, and may have struck them as sacrilegious. 2) La Vierge, over the years, has put on a few pounds, which might have been considered a satire on the Church’s accumulation of wealth, possessions and worldly power. (Not that this realistic portrait in any way disparages its subject—whatever may be said of Caravaggio’s notorious homosexuality and (in many people’s view) attendant misogyny. He isn’t stripping dignity from the subject in his version—rather he is recovering dignity for the human body itself, in the natural process of its ageing.)

Maybe the church’s officials had no particular reason for rejecting this admirable Caravaggio; maybe they simply discovered what they had in petty cash wouldn’t cover the bill he presented, were dubious of digging in to any other funds at their disposal, and decided to write off the expenses of composition—or graciously allowed the artist to—and respectfully declined.