Death of the Virgin

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  • Oil on canvas, 1606
  • 369 x 245 cm
  • Musée du Louvre, Paris

This was the largest picture that Caravaggio produced. Commissioned in 1602 for the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere; but when they saw it, the friars found it alarming, because her swollen body was too realistic and promptely rejected it. After Caravaggio had left Rome, Rubens urged his master, the Duke of Mantua, to buy it. Along with the rest of the movable Gonzaga collection it was bought by Charles I of England and, after he had been executed, was sold to Louis XIV. What the friars could not endure was favoured at court.

The painting is severe, sad and still. Under a red canopy hanging from a barely visible ceiling, the disciples are grouped round the corpse (fixed on a bed in rigor mortis), most standing to the left. Light coming from a window high on the left picks out their foreheads and bald pates, before falling on the upper part of the Virgin's body. Above her stands the young, mourning St John the Evangelist who had been given special charge of her; in front, the seated Mary Magdalene stoops forward and almost buries her head in her lap.

In the predominant colors&emdash;red, orange, dark green&emdash; Caravaggio uses a slightly wider range than in his other darker Roman paintings, but nowhere else did he achieve a mood of such overwhelming solemnity. Mary's companions, her Son's followers, are struck dumb by their grief. There is no suggestion that their sorrow will be turned into joy or that Mary will be assumed into heaven.

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