MADELINE JUNE HENSON 91, passed away peacefully
January 5, 2008. She was born
Unlike the gallons on ink spilled over the passings of the famous, Mrs. Henson’s death, like those of the millions of us who are born, toil and die in relative anonymity, if we are officially mourned at all, was apportioned the minimum amount.
Which is why Caravaggio’s painting, The Death of the Virgin, was considered so scandalous in the early 1600’s and is so important to us now.
The painter’s name was Michelangelo Merisi. He was born in
The Death of the Virgin was commissioned in 1601 by a wealthy patron for his private chapel in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Scala. The Carmelites promptly rejected it. A close look might tell us why.
The large vertical surface of the painting can be neatly divided in two. In the top half, a cloud-like drapery of cloth, the color of blood, hangs like shroud ready to drop. A blinding shaft of light illuminates the bottom half where the Virgin Mary lies dead. She wears a plain red dress, a color coding of the time symbolizing flesh and human vulnerability. The head lolls to the side, the powerless hand dangles, and the feet protrude from over the bed’s edge. Unlike in the depiction of the event by Titian before, there is no assumption into Heaven on a cloud, surrounded by choirs of angels here. Caravaggio’s Mary is as dead as any mortal ever was. Her sacred status is signified only by a thin slice of halo. The aging apostles clustered around the body are washed in shadow, their grieving faces hidden by hands. The woman in the foreground is probably Mary Magdalene in a familiar pose.
There is little suggestion of sacredness in this painting or of the
celebrity of the event. This alone could have caused the Carmelites to reject it. What might have sent them over the edge was the rumor that the
model for the Blessed Virgin was a Roman prostitute who had committed suicide
by drowning herself in the
Whether or not the rumor was true, I like to think that
Caravaggio wasn’t engaged in anything as juvenile as flipping off the Church. I
think his purpose was deeper and more humane than that. After all, Mary remains
the most popular figure in the communion of Catholic saints. In
When my own mother died, there were no angels in attendance that I saw, and she deserved them as much as anyone ever did. I think that Caravaggio’s Mary, in her death, became all mothers, all women and, by extension, all of us. I think Caravaggio is saying that there is no death within the wide boneyard of planet Earth that is not sacred. Not my mother’s. Not Madeline Henson’s.