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Death of the Virgin


It's a painting by Caravaggio - he is famous for his dramatic use of lighting and his topics often involve intense emotional and physical states. He trained under Titian in Milan and later moved to Rome where a demand for paintings was high because a lot of churches and palazzos where built at the time. The church used all propaganda they could muster to counteract spreading Protestant Revolution and the best propaganda was beautiful religious art. Caravaggio is also famous for using a painting technique called chiaroscuro - a shift from light to dark without intermediate color tones.

Caravaggio became a successful painter and never lacked patrons and commissions but he didn't handle his success well - he vandalized his own apartment, got into fights constantly and was jailed several times ALSO the pope issued a death warrant over his head for killing a young man (possibly unintentionally). Having headhunters after him, Caravaggio fled from Rome to other cities where he also got into fights - Malta, Naples, etc. He dies at a young age of 38 while travelling to Rome to receive a pardon. Supposedly, he died from fever. His fame quickly vanished and he was rediscovered only in the 20th century when it was noticed that generations of artists were influenced by his tenebrist (shadowist) and chiaroscuro techniques. His sexuality is often questioned - he never married or had children, never painted nude women, only beautiful inviting boys - example below:

There is no hard evidence for his sexual orientation - he is known to have enjoyed the company of prostitutes and most likely slept with men as well. The lens of homosexuality would explain a lot of his frustration in life - living in an oppressive and intolerant society can drive anyone a bit batty.

Now, let's talk about the actual painting. It was commissioned by monks who rejected the work as unworthy of the church. The painting hung in a private collection until french monarchs purchased it. (no looting involved, yay). So why was it rejected?
 
First of, it is rumored that a prostitute modeled as the Virgin Mary. A DEAD PROSTITUTE fished out of the Tiber river. Also, The Virgin Mary looks as holy as a bag of dead meat, there is nothing in the painting to show off her divinity, except for a thin, barely visible halo. She is dressed up in ordinary clothing. There's a lack of conventional signs of veneration and devotion. Yet the scene is deeply emotional and monumental - we can feel the sorrow of those standing by her dead body, the play with light and dark creates an almost theatrical, grand setting. The energetic rawness of his work, which you could call counter - mannerist, evoked strong reactions from people - he was even called in for an inquisition hearing. Caravaggio's paintings started an iconographic revolution and the ripples of his work were felt throughout centuries. The revolution was in representing holy narratives without the conventional signs of holiness or the conventional signs of veneration. 

Another controversial point in the painting is the fact that the Virgin Mary is depicted dead. At that time, serious religious people endlessly argued about whether the Virgin Mary really experienced physical death and then went into heaven or whether she went into heaven alive and well. In Caravaggio's picture, she's very clearly dead. Oh, the terrible controversy...

The figures in the painting are nearly life-sized, the composition is arranged around the Virgin - most light falls on her and the surrounding Apostles and Mary Magdalene (ex-prostitute who was forgiven by Jesus). The amplitude of grief is demonstrated not by contorted facial expressions but by people hiding their faces.