Shady alleyways, dire straits, and despair. The latter state is shown through Caravaggio’s ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ where some of the potential obstacles in one’s path of life are manifest. Albeit being found in Vienna, this work was originally intended for St Dominic’s Church in Naples. The often disregarded bleak social reality, then present, is evident, and this glimpse of a familiar reality undoubtedly aids the intended viewer in their contemplation of the work.
As can be deduced from the very name of this masterpiece, the Rosary is the central subject of the painting. One of the possible starting points for the representation of the latter prayer is the original destination of the work. This is because the Dominican order taught the Rosary to the faithful since its simplicity of recital, consisting principally of 10 Hail Marys, the Our Father and the Glory Be, allowed every person, without discrimination of class or level of education to replicate a similar mode of prayer to that of the Monks.
At the very centre of the painting, are baby Jesus’ bare feet – something which at first glance may seem bizarre. However, one notes that the homeless are also depicted barefoot and their dirty feet in the viewers’ vision may likely evoke mixed feelings. A parallelism can be drawn between the mother and child in the bottom half, and Mary and Jesus at the very centre. The nudity of baby Jesus recalls human poverty and thus could also be indicative of the understanding that the Virgin and Son have of those suffering. Nudity also recalls Exodus 3:5 where Moses is called to remove his sandals as stepping on holy ground; a calling to every one of us, a calling to remove those masks which we often wear in front of God, forgetting that it is in our vulnerable nature that He meets us and offers to accompany us to sainthood. The bottom half of the painting is also characterized by the pilgrim dressed in green and red, and the sick, swaddled in sheets… both presentations of self through innate simplicity.
Hands and eye-contact are salient features of this composition and don’t solely reflect the communication in the scene, but with any one of us viewers through an individual call. With one hand Jesus hugs Mary, the other is positioned on his stomach, indicative of the prayer of the suffering, in this case to be granted food. Irrespective of how simple or diverse the struggle, this gesture shows that He understands exactly where we are.
The only three people facing the viewer are Jesus, the Saviour, St Peter who invites us to look at the Virgin and Child, and the commissioner of the painting who doesn’t appertain to those suffering on the streets in Naples, but nonetheless is on his knees paying homage to St Dominic. Just as those suffering turn unto St Dominic in prayer, St Dominic and St Peter the martyr also resort to prayer irrespective of their sanctity. In turn, the Virgin Mary seems to urge the saints to give the rosary to the people… Would this be another innuendo to reaching out to those who seek, regardless of one’s path of life?
Image: The Kunsthistorisches Museum
Corinne Sammut Micallef Grimaud