Caravaggio: Chiesa Nuova and the Death of Mary

Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella       Entrance      Tympanum

Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella  facade
photos: Wolfgang Moroder and tympanum Lawrence OP

Pope Gregory XIII, who was a close friend of Vittrici’s, introduced an indulgence for praying in his chapel in the Chiesa Nuova. Vittrici died before his chapel was completed. The chapel and altar were completed after his death. The pope reiterated that the privilege that was granted must be upheld. This meant that a chapel like the one we are standing before now, was very popular with the faithful, because it would get you an indulgence. The Santa Maria in Vallicella, as this church is officially called, houses a total of 12 altar pieces in the chapels near the aisles. These altar pieces form a single continuing story about the Road to Calvary. Each of the altar pieces includes a representation of the Virgin Mary among the other figures.

Caravaggio ‘Entombment’ 1603 -1604, 300 x 203 cm
Vatican’s Pinacoteca

The Chiesa Nuova originally also featured a famous painting by Caravaggio in the second chapel on the right; the Vittrici Chapel. You will see this painting later in the Vatican’s Pinacoteca. For now, we will have to make do with a replica of the Entombment of Christ. We will nevertheless discuss this painting here because it has to be seen in context to be understood.

Chiesa Nuova nave       Map of the Church and Oratorio

Chiesa Nuova or Santa Maria in Vallicella  Nave
photo: Dennis Jarvis

The two chapels adjoining the Vittrici Chapel feature altar pieces depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. The Entombment that Caravaggio painted for the Vittrici Chapel fits in perfectly. Many of the altar pieces had already been completed when Caravaggio started on his altarpiece in 1603. We will compare the adjoining Crucifixion by Pulzone with Caravaggio’s work. You will see that Caravaggio not only makes the story properly connect with Pulzone’s painting, but also some of the figures and their clothing, for instance the red robe and green cloak. St John (the man close to Christ in the green cloak and red robe) has the same face as the apostle painted by Pulzone The light that comes from the right and the diagonal composition perfectly match this chapel’s natural lighting.
If you stand in front of this replica, it seems like you form part of the entombment; you are standing in the grave looking up.

Rubens, who six years later worked on his altar piece above the main altar here, agreed. However, he felt that Caravaggio’s composition did not make clear where exactly Christ would be laid to rest. Several years later Rubens was to paint an entombment that did make this clear.

Rubens ‘The entombment’ 1612-1614

Rubens 'The entombment'
National Gallery of Canada

Rubens did not understand why Caravaggio painted this specific composition, which was never intended as a good description of the actual site. Central to this painting is its deeper meaning and the atmosphere of the entombment. It is more of an icon than a story, which also applies to Michelangelo’s Pietá. In his letter to the Romans (Romans 6: 4-6) Paul explains the link between entombment and resurrection. Man must follow Christ in death to be able to lead a new life. This idea is only properly illustrated when during consecration the priest raises his host while standing before the altar, and then right before the painting of the grave and the dead Christ speaks the words: ‘for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Do this, as often as you do this, in memory of Me. The worshippers attending mass could actually see the body of Christ while listening to these words. Seen in this light, it is an icon of the Corpus Domini.

Raphael ‘Deposition’ 184 x 176 cm 1507 Galleria Borghese

If you compare Raphael’s Deposition, which you will see in the Villa Borghese, with this one you will notice big differences. Raphael strongly idealized his figures. In a famous letter to Baldassare Castiglione, he wrote that he did not use models, but ideas. Caravaggio’s figures in this altar piece are very realistic, for instance Nicodemus, the man in the foreground on the right, St. John, Mary, Mary Magdalene or Mary of Clopas. Caravaggio used a Roman street girl as a model for Mary of Clopas, the woman who throws up both hands. The gesture she makes is very classical, it can be found on many a sarcophagus from antiquity.

Caravaggio ‘Entombment’     Nicodemus

Caravaggio 'Entombment'
Michelangelo 'Pietà'

Michelangelo ‘Pietà’

Typical of Caravaggio is the inattentive St John’s hand that comes out from under Christ’s armpit with his fingers opening up Christ’s wound. This sort of detail is characteristic of Caravaggio. If you still have the image of Michelangelo’s Pietà in your head, you will realise that Caravaggio used that work for inspiration, as he was wont to do.

Caravaggio ‘Death of the Virgin’ 369 x 245 cm, Louvre Paris

One painting that we are not going to see, but that I want to briefly discuss because it forms part of the series of public commissions in Rome, is Death of the Virgin that Caravaggio painted for the Santa Maria della Scala.

Caravaggio ‘Death of the Virgin’ detail’

This church was administrated by the Discalced Carmelites, which was founded by St Teresa of Avila. St Mary’s death is usually depicted according to the Biblical apocrypha, which state that St Mary appeared to be falling asleep when she died. This took three days, after which she ascended to heaven. (on August 15th). Caravaggio’s painting was rejected, probably because he used a prostitute for his model. (Rumour has it that he used the body of a pregnant prostitute who committed suicide by drowning herself in the Tiber river) From Manguel page 298.

Hopeless bereavement

Caravaggio 'Death of the Virgin' detail: "hopeless bereavement"

Even though the Carmelites rejected the painting it was highly praised by others. It was put on display in the collections of the dukes of Mantua, Charles I of England and Louis XIV and today is one of the top pieces of the Louvre.

Other paintings of Caravaggio in Rome Palazzi, Galleries and Museums:

On our way to the Pantheon

On our way to the Pantheon
photo: Neil Howard

Continuation Rome day 5: The Pantheon and his history I