Death of the Virgin

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Caravaggio, Death of the Virgin, 1605-6
By ETHAN DOSKEY

A man of controversy himself, Caravaggio's work followed suit. This painting at completion was rejected by the clergy and by the patron because of its indecency. There were rumors that the model for the Virgin Mary was a woman of the night that Caravaggio found in a river and dragged into the studio.

Additionally, the suggestion that she is dead welcomed even more distress among the Catholic community. Her sickly and bloated feet and hands along with her frazzled hair suggests that she is, in fact, dead. To quote Monty Python, she "is no more! [She] has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace!"

It appears that her death occurred and was neither instantaneous nor holy. The Apostles and the young woman in the foreground (who I will assume is Mary Magdalene) grieve like she had died like any other mortal, and did not assent into heaven without "dying," as it is suggested in the Bible. Unlike other artists at the time, Mary is not embracing the heavens or is surrounded by angels and cherubs. Instead, she appears grounded on Earth. And her halo is barely visible. While this is a spiritual painting, few clues suggest this.

One of these indications is the beautiful red draping fabric that mirrors the scene below it. Somewhat of a mannerist flare to the image, it covers about one third of the painting's composition. Because its color is the same as the Virgin Mary's dress, Caravaggio hints that this is her soul ascending into heaven. Other Assumption of the Virgin paintings of this time appear almost nothing like this rendition. This masterpiece looks to be happening right before us as if we are standing right behind the brass bowl on the ground. Like in Giotto's Lamentation about three hundred years before, Caravaggio welcomes the viewer right into the scene as if we were witnessing this biblical scene with the rest of them.

This is just one of several dark, Earthly, captivating, controversial and so well executed paintings Caravaggio produced as he matured and grew more insane. How can such a mad man create such beautiful and contemporary art?

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