Magazine article The Spectator

Meeting the Madonna and Child

Magazine article The Spectator

Meeting the Madonna and Child

Article excerpt

In a shadowy doorway, a woman holds a naked child. though it is rather a grand opening, the place seems to have seen better days; the stone against which she leans is chipped, the stucco of the wall beside is peeling. In the street below the doorstep kneel two people, a bearded man, and an aging, wrinkled woman. From their clothes, and from the bare, dirty feet of the man one presumes that these are humble, ordinary folk. From the halo round the head of the woman in the doorway it is obvious that she is the Queen of Heaven.

This is 'Madonna di Loreto', by Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. It is still to be found on the altar for which it was painted, to the left of the door of the church of S. Agostino, in the centre of Rome. A glance reveals that is not a picture of the Nativity, of course -- for one thing the child is far too old, for another the cast of characters is wrong. The couple kneeling are not biblical herders of sheep but individuals from the time and place the picture was painted in the very early 17th century, that is.

The painting is of a miraculous apparition of the Madonna and Child to a pair of contemporary pilgrims (hence the staves, hence the bare, penitential feet). But few images give such an urgent dramatisation of the central event of the Nativity - the Incarnation; few altarpieces provide such a feeling that the Madonna and Child might be encountered here and now, just round the comer. Indeed, just round the comer is exactly where Caravaggio has set his painting.

The subject he was given - the Madonna of Loreto - is attached to one of the more pleasantly fantastic of miraculous stories. The house of the Virgin Mary, it was believed, had flown supernaturally through the air from the Holy Land to alight at Loreto in eastern Italy on the night of 9 December 1294. This flight was painted by Tiepolo in the 18th century as an airily improbable ceiling for a Venetian church (sadly destroyed during the first world war). But Caravaggio has transported the house again, from Loreto to central Rome.

That dark wall, that shadowy doorway and crumbling travertine moulding, that antique and slightly sinister ambience could be anywhere in the streets around S. Agostino. The streets, that is, where Caravaggio himself was living in this year, and where he committed one or two notable crimes.

In fact, one can probably go further in connecting this religious image with Caravaggio's troubled personal life. There is reason to believe that the model for the Madonna was one Una - short for Maddalena - who was, according to a criminal complaint, 'to be found standing in Piazza Navona', three minutes walk from S. Agostino, and 'who is Caravaggio's woman'. (This seems to belie or at least complicate the common assumption that Caravaggio was homosexual.)

According to Helen Langdon in her excellent life of Caravaggio (Vintage, L6.99), Lena was not, as her presence in Piazza Navona might suggest, a prostitute. She came apparently from a poor but honourable family and, perhaps to underline that status, her mother exacted a stiff fee from Caravaggio for posing. Perhaps it was her respectability which led to the difficulties.

Lena had rejected the advances of a notary, Mariano da Pasqualone, on the grounds that his occupation endangered his soul. Pasqualone then complained to Lena's mother that she should not allow her daughter to associate with 'an excommunicant and cursed man', such as Caravaggio. …

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