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Deposition of Caravaggio
Palestrina, Missa Asumpta est Maria in Coeli, gloria
Benedetto Marcello, Marcello Psaumes XIV & XVII, Capella Savaria Pal Nemeth
Below, the works of Rubens in the Chiesa Nuova.
Left: Gregorio Magno e SS. Mauro & Papia
Center: Mary and Child surrounded by angels
Right: Santa Domitilla Flavia and SS. Achileo & Nereo
Rubens, First version - Refused: now in Grenoble
Miracolous frescoe behind medallion of Rubens, Chiesa Nuova
Theological approach of the “Deposition”
Have a close look at the work: Mary is the elder lady in the middle in blue. On a first view, she looks to stand in the back. But try to find the hands of Mary .... One is on the left, next to the head of St. John, the other is on the right, just under the lifted arm of Maria Cleofa. Spiritually She stands in the position of the Cross, embracing all the others. Furthermore we are seeing the crying Mary Magdalena and Giuseppe Arimatèa, the wealthy person who gave his unused tomb to burry Christ.
And Mary is holding them all together! She continued to carry the Cross after Jesus death. During Jesus agony in the garden, during the process and on the cross, all the apostles left him, with exception of st. John. And it was Mary who kept the inner circle of the church together until Pentecost, the descend of the Holy Spirit when all were gathered together, and again, Mary was amongst them.
Here, Mary is standing in the position of the cross. In the vault of the chapel, two angels are bringing the Cross to heaven. (Caravaggio will use the concept in other works: look at the conversion of st. Paul in the church “Santa Maria del Popolo”: Saul/Paul is falling from the horse, in the position of the cross. Once he’s converted he’s becoming a follower of Christ and is ready to take up his cross). And as it is obvious a painting for the Holy Week, we must keep in mind that during that week the same psalm 118 (119), 22 is used every day: “The stone rejected by the builders, is becoming the cornerstone ...” And now we see that stone in the painting. It is the stone that Jesus point out with his finger, and on which Mary is standing in the middle in the position of the Cross. The Stone is becoming the living stone on which the faithful are built up into a spiritual house under the guidance of Mary. The altar beneath the painting of Caravaggio differs from the other altars in the church Santa Maria in Vallicella: Compared to the other altar-stones in the church, this one is a solid, one single piece! It’s a tomb-stone.
“Rulers of the people and elders ... Be it known to you all ... that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man stands before you in good health. This (viz. Jesus) is the stone rejected by you the builders, but which has become the head of the corner.”
Scipio Pulzone, Crocifixon, Chiesa Nuova , Roma
Caravaggio, Deposition , Chiesa Nuova , Roma, 1604
The Holy Shroud
And then, there is the shroud, who falls so gently on this stone: the pure white of Caravaggio, who was said he painted his white by moonlight. White, the spiritual color for faith: We should indeed belief that he died and resurrected. St. Augustine, in his homily on this verse in Psalm 118 speaks of Christ illuminating us so that we may understand what we believe. The light in our picture is a symbol of the life-giving power of the Almighty which will bring life out of death in the Resurrection of Christ. (1) (9)
18. "This is the day which the Lord hath made" (ver. 24). This man remembereth that he had said in former Psalms," Since He hath inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him as long as I live;"(6) making mention of his old days; whence he now saith, "This is the day which the Lord hath made;" that is, wherein He hath given me Salvation. This is the day whereof He said, "In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of Salvation have I helped thee;"(7) that is, a day wherein He, the Mediator, hath become the head Stone of the corner. "Let us rejoice," therefore, "and be glad in Him." st Austustine, ennarationes in psalmos, ps 118shapeimage_2_link_0
In the arch above the entrance of the chapel we find in plaster the Holy Shroud back. In those days the Holy Shroud was preserved in Bologna. One of the fathers of the Oratory, Alfonso Paleotti wrote a “trattato “ about the the authenticity of the Holy Shroud in relation to a good friend of st. Philipp, Carlo Borromeo. And the bishop of Saluzzo, the Oratorian Giovenale Ancina was invited by the Duke of Savoia to hold a sermon in Turin on the 4th of May 1604, in occasion of the exposition of the Holy Shroud. (2)
18. "This is the day which the Lord has made" Psalm 117:24. This man remembers that he had said in former Psalms, "Since He has inclined His ear unto me, therefore will I call upon Him as long as I live;" making mention of his old days; whence he now says, "This is the day which the Lord has made;" that is, wherein He has given me Salvation. This is the day whereof He said, "In an acceptable time have I heard you, and in a day of Salvation have I helped you;" Isaiah 49:8 that is, a day wherein He, the Mediator, has become the head Stone of the corner. "Let us rejoice," therefore, "and be glad in Him."
The Holy Shroud confirms that He resurrected! And also that is in the painting of Caravaggio: It “looks” like a painting of distress over the death of Our Lord, but actually it’s a painting about resurrection. Look closely in the right bottom angle, in the darkness where is death: Over the stones you find death plants; going over to the left in the light (Prologue of the gospel of st. John), there is the fresh acanthus.
Going from the dark to new light, from death to resurrection; how you can do it better than with the acanthus? It is the strangest plant that I know: it grows in the winter when every-thing else is dead. It’s even growing through the snow. At the end of the spring it’s flower-ing and .... dying. That on a moment when the whole of Nature is getting in its full glory. The wonderful act of this flower made it a “flower of eternal life”. And the Greek used it as the decoration of the Corinthian column in their temples to celebrate the eternal gods. And this passage from death to new life is also present in Mary Cleofa, as a diagonal inclusion with the living acanthus, where she stands in the position of the Orante. The orante (coming from the latin verb: orare-to pray) is an archetype we find often back in the catacombs in Rome. The lifted arms are those of who are already in the beatitude of Heaven.
In the catacombs of st. Callistus in Rome (left), we see often the theme of the Orante in relation to the Holy Eucharist. It is on the stone (altar) that the resurrection is celebrated. And the Eucharist is the assemble of the faithful. Pope Gregory XIII, benefactor of the Oratory and the chapel conceded in 1582 a full indulgence to all faithful people who went to see the Holy Shroud. If a priest was celebrating the Holy Mess in the chapel and during the consecration lifted the Holy Sacrament, he could put it almost on edge of the stone in the work of Caravaggio.
In his homily on October 4th, 2013 at Assisi, Pope Francis clearly and beautifully reflected on the crucified Lord and his gift of divine life for us and to us:
The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14).
The assemble of the faithful
Mary hold the young Church together until Pentecost. But one person doesn't take part of it: Mary Cleofa, the faithful believer in the Lord, in the position of the Orante, as described above, announcing already the resurrection: the next line in Psalm 118:24 about the rejected stone is: “This is the day that the Lord has made; Let’s us rejoice and be happy!” This verse will be recited every day during the Octave of Easter. This is resurrection-day. She, already in the beatitude of Heaven, doesn't need Mary anymore.
Among those that Mary keeps together, we have also st.John, the only apostle who didn’t leave Jesus when he was on the cross. But look at the colors that Caravaggio used for him: green and red. We know already that white is the spiritual color for faith; so is green for hope and red for charity. The green expresses here the resurrection: “We don’t give up hope, even when death is present ...”. There will be new life after death. And wasn’t st.John not the most beloved disciple of Jesus? In the Cenacle of Leonardo da Vinci he is sitting on the left of Jesus. He loved Him (the red color) until death and beyond.
The beautiful girl in the middle who is crying is Mary Magdalen. But isn’t she always crying? In the gospel of Luke (3), she is the sinful woman who bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and wiped them with her hair on the moment of her conversion. But as a convert she is welcome in the group hold together by Mary. Or ... is she also pre-announcing the future? Wasn’t she the one on the day of Easter who was walking in the garden and found the open tomb, crying that they took Him away? (4) But Mary Magdalen will be also be to be the first to see the risen Christ. (5)
The Council of Trent in 1540 had changed the lecture for the feast of st.Mary Magdalen. In the pre-Tridentine Missal, Magdalen i accorded the reading from the Proverbs 31:10 on the ideal housewife who was trusted by her husband and was industrious in providing non only for her own household but also for the needs of the poor. In the post-Tridentine Missal however, the reading was replaced by a poen from one of the greatest collection of love songs of the ancient world. viz. “the Canticle of Canticles” or Song of Solomon. (6)
... I will arise now, and go about the city: in the streets and the broad ways
I will seek him whom my soul loves.
I sought him, but I found him not.
The watchmen on their rounds in the city found me...
The vault of the chapel
We referred already of the importance of the presence of the Holy Shroud above the entrance of the chapel. But also the frescoes of Angelo Caroselli of 1611, are important in the meditation of the chapel.
In the middle we have the Pietà, the mother Mary mourning over the body of her dead so.
On the left is King David and on the right we have the prophets Isaia and Abadcuc.
In his hand he has he holds Psalm 88 (87):6. “inter mortuos liber”. Also remarkable is the foot of King David that sticks forward .... like the cornerstone in the work of Caravaggio. Was that the stone on which King David stumbled, when he send is best friend to the frontline in the war, so that he died? But he got redeemed. And became king David.
One of us may be the faithful Mary Cleofa, and an other can recognize himself in st.John, who’s trust in the Lord never vanished. Or maybe, you are the converted person like Mary Magdalen, who will be the first to see the risen Christ? or are you still looking like Joseph of Arimatèa, the catechumen? One thing we know for sure: Mary, the mother of God, keeps us together.
In the spirit of the Council of Trent, and after Martin Luther tried to bring people closer to God by using the vulgar language, the Oratorians of st.Philipp Neri did the same: Ordinary people are making up the congregation.
This church has no chapel of Resurrection, nor, indeed of the Entombment in the traditional sense, showing the rock-tomb in which Christ’s body is being laid. What Caravaggio’s picture does is to represent, in one powerful symbol, both the entombment and the resurrection of Jesus.
(1)O’Connor, Daniel, The Stone Builders Rejected, in “the Irish Theological Quarterly”, Vol 61, n° 1, pp. 2-13
(2)Santa Maria in Vallicella - Chiesa Nuova, BARBIERI, Costanza, BARCHIESI Sofia and FERRARA Daniele, Fratelli Palombi Editori, Roma 1995, note 296, page 183.
(3) Lc. 7:38
(4) Jh. 20:11
(5) Matt. 28:9
(6) Cant. 3:1-3
(7) Jh. 19:38
(8) Vesalius, Andreas. On the Fabric of the Human Body, translated by W. F. Richardson and J. B. Carman. 5 vols. San Francisco and Novato: Norman Publishing, 1998-2009.
One of the masterpieces in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museum is for sure the Deposition of Caravaggio, (Michelangelo Merisi), made in 1604.
Originally in Santa Maria in Vallicella, one of the most beautiful churches of Rome (with works of Giudo Reni, Barocci, Cav. D’Arpino, Maratta, Rubens, Pietro da Cortona and many more). This church would be much more frequented by admires if this work would return in situ. On the order of Napoleon Bonaparte it was removed by Valadier and shipped to France on the 20th of March 1797. Luckily, after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, thanks to the enormous efforts of Canova, it returned to Italy … hélas, not to the second chapel on the right in the Chiesa Nuova (the popular name of the church Santa Maria in Vallicella), but to the Vatican, where you still can admire it. Luckily, the fathers of the Oratory of the Chiesa Nuova, who didn’t want to interrupt the cyclus of the theme of the church, spread over the various chapels, asked, just before it left Rome, the Tyrolese painter Michele Koeck, to make a excellent copy of it.
Napoleon Bonaparte was for sure one of the biggest thieves of Italian art. It is said that when he was in Rome to visit his mother, who lived at the Piazza Venezia, he was the guest of the family Massimo alla Colonna. (Their palace is today still at the Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle II). Daily, an object disappeared from his writing desk, until finally, he approached the prince saying: “Credo, tutti gli italiani sono ladri” ; (I believe, all Italians are thieves!); on which the prince replied: “Tutti no , ma Buona-parte si!” (Not all of them, but a great deal, yes!)
The Church Santa Maria in Vallicella is for sure one of the masterpieces of the Catholic Reformation. Founded by Saint Philip Neri by the grace of Gregory XIII in 1575, he build the first big church after the Council of Trent, totally dedicated to the Mother of God, Mary, the protector for his Congregation of the Orator
St. Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory (and we all know the word Oratory within the music world: a.e. the Messiah of Haendel …), created something quite strange within the Catholic Church: The Oratory; a society of Apostolic Life. A living together of secular priests and laymen based on equality. There aren’t superiors (only a primus inter pares – chosen for three years), no vows, they are independent of church hierarchy (every house in the world depends directly of the pope, today reunited in a Confederation). Every member has to contribute to the cost of the household with what he is earning. When decisions had to be made, the majority of the house decides. This structure helped St. Philip Neri to create what he called a simple church: the Chiesa Nuova. Looking at it, you would never call thàt simple. But simplicity doesn’t imply that it should be cheap! Look at a minimalist kitchen: there is almost nothing in it, but it’s very expensive.
The photo that I choose of the Deposition, I would say, is maybe not the best, because overlighted, but it helps to see every detail also especially those who are in the shadow. This is probably one of the most commented paintings that history described, but often, only from the academic point of view. One of the best comments, I found in Daniel J. O’Connor. (1) He departs from the Bible. And personal, I think, that’s a must for painting made during the catholic reformation in the second halve of the sixteenth century. And especially in the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, where the committent was allowed to pay, but not exactly deciding what the work would be.
Location of the Chapel Vittrici within the Chiesa Nuova
The whole church is dedicated to Mary, mother of God, and in every single painting, she will play an extremely important role. On your left are the paintings of Peter Pauwel Rubens, who as a young chap got the commission of painting the main altar. His first work got refused, and they didn’t want to pay is. Because in the original (below), everybody asked: Who are the six surrounding Mary? Nobody asked what was behind the oval, painted by Rubens, the miracolous fresco of Mary and Child. Rubens took the original home an hanged it in the chapel were his mother was buried in 1608, were it was token away by Napoleon (once again), and is now hanging in the museum of Grenoble.
This importance that the fathers of the Oratory were given to the spiritual importance will also reveal itself in the chapel with the deposition of Caravaggio. The sponsor of the chapel was a penitent of st. Philip, and a close friend of pope Gregory XIII, who approved the Congregation of St. Philip in 1575. The original painting rafigurated the Deposition, and among the people in the canvas was the Pope as homage to him. But the fathers couldn’t see that; they had given already enough honor to the pope, by dedicating the Church to Mary ànd Gregory (the Great). Furthermore, as I told you, Philip wanted a simple church. I believe it is the only church in Rome where you can’t find busts of sponsors, even in the walls of the chapels, there are no inscriptions: Every chapel is made to contemplate a part of the life of Mary from the beginning (with the Presentation by F. Baroccio) to the end (by her Coronation in heaven by Cav. D’Arpino): if the sponsors wanted to leave a trace, it was only possible in pavement. And the first painting for the chapel of the family had the image of pope Gregory included. When the fathers decided to enlarge the church, a new painting was ordered with the same theme: the Deposition, but now done by Caravaggio. His painting fits perfectly in the spirit of St Philip Neri. The church during his lifetime (1515-1595) was loosing his grip. Protestants revolted against the authority of Rome and her doctrine. The Church had to regain them. And when Luther decided to translate the bible in german, “that vulgar(e) language”, the church followed.
And Philip Neri was one of the first to apply it: the madrigals would be sung in the vulgar language, even using the tune of poplar songs. And painting followed it: instead of having the surreal beautiful Madonna’s of the renaissance, he would go for common people. Caravaggio’s style was the perfect one. He used daily people. You can recognize yourself in it. On top, Philip wanted a revival of the figure of Mary, Mother of God. And therefore, every chapel is dedicated to a part of her life. And in every painting she is the central figure. With exception of the Deposition of Caravaggio??? The first chapel to the right has the beautiful crucifixion by Scipione Pulzone (below). Then the Deposition of Caravaggio and the following is the Ascension of Jesus to heaven. As theme for the Vittrici chapel the fathers had the choice between a pietà, the deposition or the resurrection. They choose for the Deposition. And nonetheless this painting looks about death, it is already the announcement of Easter. Lets go in it’s details.
The stone metaphor applied to Israel in the psalm 118,22 is applied to Jesus in Acts 4:1. Israel had been humiliated and rejected as of no importance by the world-powers, but had been restored to prosperity by God’s graciousness. So too, Jesus, humiliated and rejected by the religious leaders of his time, was raised up by God in the glory of the resurrection. (1) This thought is explicitly proposed in Acts 4, 8-11 which purports to be an address of Peter (Petrus = Stone) to the religious rulers and elders in Jerusalem shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the occasion of the healing of a crippled man by Peter.
The reading selected for Mary Magdalen describes the loneliness of the girl who is searching everywhere for her beloved but cannot find him. But then He appears to her. She, a ex-sinner will be the first to see the resurrected Christ.
Her role in the early Church is so important the Pope Francis I decided in 2016 that “Saint Mary Magdalene will be the first woman other than the Blessed Virgin whose liturgical celebration has been raised to the rank of a feast.”
The liturgical feast on July 22 is totally in line with Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on Mary Magdalene in 2006: “A disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death,” the emeritus pope wrote.
Joseph of Arimatèa
He got mentioned in the gospel of st.John (7). He is described as a wealthy disciple of Jesus, but in fear for the public opinion, he didn’t profess openly his faith in Christ. But he’s offering his tomb as to bury Jesus. That means he’s on the good way ! It isn’t an easy task to become a good christian. He is the catechumen; by doing already one of the seven good works (giving food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, visiting prisoners ..... and burying the deaths) he approaches himself day after day to the real faith. He wants to become a disciple, but it is an intense task to do so. The fatigue in his face, and the strenght in his muscular legs shows you that becoming a follower of Christ is not for all a direct conversion. And doesn’t his brown cloak reminds us of what the pilgrims to Compostella are wearing? But after all, aren’t we all pilgrims on this world toward the Civitas Dei, the City of God? A few years earlier, Andreas Vesalius, a flemish anatomist and physician wrote one of the most influential books on human anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Structure of Human Body) (8). And as a good Artist, Caravaggio was informed what happened in the other Arts (Arte di Medicina). And painting the figures so natural, we in the congregation can recognize ourselves in the figures.
1 Pt 2,6; Is.28,16; Rm9,33;10,11; Is 8,14s
He is the living stone, rejected by men but chose by God and precious to him; set yourselves close to him so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house.
As Scripture says: See how I lay in Zion a precious cornerstone that I have chosen and the man who rests his trust on it will not be disappointed. That means that for you who are believers, it is precious; but for unbelievers, the stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone, a stone to stumble over, a rock to bring men down. They stumble over it because they do not believe in the word; it was the fate in store for them.
Orante in the Catacombs
Francesco Maria Rondani, attr.to (Parma 1490-1550) Christ supported by Joseph of Arimatea