This church, built between 1479 and 1483, features one of the oldest renaissance facades in Rome. It is said that the travertine used for the facade was taken from the Colosseum. This church also boasts several gorgeous works of art, including the statue ‘Madonna del Parto’ by Jacopo Sansovino and a fresco of the Prophet Isaiah by Raphael, but we are here to see Caravaggio.
In 1603 the Cavalettis, a noble family from Bologna acquired the rights to a chapel in the Sant’Agostino. They dedicated the chapel to the Madonna di Loreto.
It is a representation of a Mary cult that originated from the Loreto sanctuary in the Italian province Le Marche. In the 13th century, St Mary’s house in Nazareth was miraculously moved to Loreto by angels after the Turks had invaded the Holy Land. The basilica of the Santa Casa di Loreto was built around the small wooden house in the 15th century. It grew into a popular place of pilgrimage. The Virgin Mary is standing on the threshold of her house with a fairly oversized child in her arms.
You would have to know that it’s the Santa Casa, because it looks just like any other Roman doorway. Two pilgrims kneel down at Mary’s feet (recognizable by their staffs) a man and an older woman, both shabbily dressed and with dirty bare feet. It is precisely these two figures that sparked an uproar. Ordinary Roman citizens loved it, but Baglione for instance did not like it at all. With their dirty feet and worn-out clothes, they looked just like the beggars that Rome was full of.
Caravaggio depicts the wonder that happens to two ordinary people, i.e. the apparition of Mary. Just like them, the viewer is invited to kneel down and receive the Child’s blessing.
The woman who modelled for the beautiful St Mary was new in Caravaggio’s work. She can also be seen in the Madonna dei Palafrenieri, and is probably the Lena that sparked the altercation with notary public Pasqualone that I mentioned earlier.
The painting hung in St. Peter’s for just two days, after which it was transferred to the church of the Archconfraternity: the Sant’ Anna. Two months later it was sold to Cardinal Borghese, which is why it is now on display at the Galleria Borghese. Why? Was it rejected or did Borghese offer a lot of money for it? Was St Mary’s cleavage to pronounced or the child too naked? Did St Anne look too common? We just don’t know.
The Madonna dei Palafrenieri was Caravaggio’s most prestigious assignment, which he received from the Archconfraternity of the Pontifical Grooms (Palafrenieri) on 1 December 1605. The painting was intended for St Peter’s (Madonna dei Palafrenieri St.Peter reconstruction). The archconfraternity was responsible for all practical and ceremonial affairs in the papal household. Their patron saint was the Virgin Mary’s mother St Anne. In the painting you can see Mary and Jesus crushing a snake, therewith fulfilling a prophecy: God would send a second Eve to eradicate the sin of the first. The Virgin Mary and her child triumph over Satan. To contemporary viewers, however, the snake also symbolized the church’s victory over the greatest Satan: Protestantism. St Anne is in the painting in her capacity as patron saint but also due to her increasing popularity during the renaissance. Her cult flourished primarily during the Counter Reformation, because the more exemplary the mother’s life, the more credible the special status of her daughter.