The Death of a Controversy

There is a controversial painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio titled, The Death of the Virgin. In the silent drama depicted, one sees Mary Magdalen and Christ’s Apostles hovering around the body of a dead Virgin Mary. As is characteristic in Caravaggio’s paintings, the heavy use of shadows in this scene creates an ambiance of mystery and wonderment. 

The spotlight is pointed off-center where the Mother of Jesus is shown wrapped in a non-lucid red dress, with tattered hair, a bloated torso, stiff and pale. The drapery that dresses the top of the painting is livelier and more stylish than the deceased, once Bearer of Light.

It is thought that Caravaggio used a prostitute - his own mistress - as a stand-in for the Virgin. Though Caravaggio’s work was ultimately rejected and returned to the painter by the man who commissioned it, it is not assumed that it was due to the fact that a lustful, sinful woman was, in some ways, the woman behind Caravaggio’s Mater Dei

It is scandalous, without a doubt. What does a lustful woman who sells her body to make a living have anything to do with the immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of the Theotokos? Is this nothing more than a disrespect for the holiness of the New Eve?

It is perhaps this idea that is truly at the center of the drama. By juxtaposing the Virgin’s purity with a prostitute’s sinfulness, Mary’s inviolability is highlighted. It is not that the Virgin’s spotlessness is stained by Caravaggio’s representation, but rather the painter shows us accurately who the Virgin Mother is not.

Mary did, in fact, offer her virginity to God to be intimately united with Him. It was this intimacy with the Divine Creator that brought forth the Son of God; the love and power of the Holy Spirit filled the Virgin’s womb with God’s very presence.

Mary, then, was not selfish with her gifts, but perfectly generous. She drapes herself, not with the finest garments, but with the finest graces. The Death of the Virgin is one of Caravaggio’s best paintings, but the Virgin Mary herself is God’s greatest work of art. The Mother of God did not die a dreadful death, but slept peacefully in the presence of the Lord. It is the Almighty who has done great things for Mary and has lifted up His lowly servant.

By Edgar Avendano @latinofilmmaker

Death of the Virgin, Caravaggio (1606)